Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

WASHINGTON - New polls show California Senator and Democratic presidential contender Kamala Harris surging after her performance in last week's first Democratic candidates' debate.

The surveys also show Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gaining ground while the current Democratic frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, is slipping. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has also lost ground, according to the new surveys.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed Biden still leading the Democratic primary field at 22 percent, followed closely by Harris at 20 percent. Warren is in third place with 14 percent followed by Sanders at 13 percent.

Harris also saw dramatic movement in a new CNN/SRSS poll that found her moving into second place among the Democratic contenders with 17 percent support, narrowly trailing Biden who leads with 22 percent.

FILE - Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

Warren placed third with 15 percent followed by Sanders at 14 percent.  Trailing behind the top tier in the CNN poll were South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 4 percent, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke both with 3 percent, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at 2 percent.

Iowa shift

Similar trends were evident in a national poll by Morning Consult/Politico and in a survey in the early voting state of Iowa by Suffolk University and USA Today.

In the Iowa poll, Biden continues to lead the Democratic pack with 24 percent support, but Harris has hurtled into second place with 16 percent following the debate, ahead of Warren with 13 percent and Sanders at 9 percent.

Iowa begins the caucus and primary season to choose a Democratic nominee with its caucus vote on Feb. 3, 2020.

Debate impact

The new polling data confirms that Harris was able to capitalize on her direct challenge of Biden during last week's debate in Miami.

Harris told Biden in the debate that his defense of having worked with segregationist senators decades earlier was "hurtful." She also took him to task for his opposition to government-mandated busing efforts to desegregate public schools in the 1970s.

"You also worked with them to oppose busing," Harris said in the debate televised by NBC.  "And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me."

Biden appeared stung by the criticism and launched into a defense of his own civil rights record during his lengthy career as a senator and vice president.

"I am the guy who extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years! We got to a place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I have also argued very strongly that deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box," Biden said in his response.

Harris jolt

Prior to the debate, Harris had been stuck in the high single-digits in most polls, well behind the top-tier contenders of Biden, Sanders and Warren.

But analysts say the first debate has clearly given the Harris campaign a jolt.

"I think Kamala Harris really did come out of this debate pretty well," said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "Joe Biden is a frontrunner but holds a lot of support that is, perhaps, weak. The African American community is very with Joe Biden in the polls today. I think Kamala Harris really made a play for that in the debate and she would be a candidate who would speak to that group that is 25 percent of the electorate of the Democratic Party."

Biden impact

Biden has been the Democratic frontrunner since he entered the race earlier this year.  University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik told VOA that some of Biden's vulnerabilities are beginning to show and he can expect more scrutiny in the debates to come.

FILE - Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa, June 11, 2019.

"And it will be a test for Biden as to whether he can maintain his level of support. Is his level of support just based on generic goodwill from the Obama years, his vice presidential tenure and his name identification? Or is there something deeper about Biden's level of support that will help him withstand what is to come?" he said.

There are some bits of good news for Biden in the CNN poll. He still leads the Democratic field, though with a sharply reduced margin. And Biden also retains strong support from African American voters, a key voting bloc within the Democratic Party. Biden still leads among black voters with 36 percent support, but Harris has closed the gap at 24 percent.

The polls also show that many Democrats still see Biden as a moderate and regard him as perhaps the strongest candidate to take on President Donald Trump next year.

The CNN poll found that 43 percent of Democrats see Biden as the strongest challenger to Trump, with Sanders a distant second.

Quinnipiac found that 42 percent believe Biden has the best chance of beating Trump, while Harris was second at 14 percent.

Beating Trump

Previous polling has shown that defeating Trump in 2020 remains the top priority for most Democratic voters, according to Emory University expert Andra Gillespie.

"What Biden is kind of banking on is the fact that there are lots of moderate primary voters in particular who may be liberal on some things but are not as liberal as, say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would be in the election. And so there might be a higher comfort level with him," Gillespie told VOA via Skype.

The next Democratic debate will be held over two nights later this month in Detroit, Michigan.  The same qualifying standards apply as the first debate, which means that in order to appear on the debate stage, a candidate must register at least 1 percent in the polls and document campaign contributions from at least 65,000 individual donors.

The qualifications get tougher for the third debate in September. Contenders will have to register 2 percent in the polls and demonstrate 130,000 individual donors in order to qualify, standards that likely will leave some of the candidates out of the debate and scrambling to save their campaigns.