Updated Jul 31, 2019

What to watch for on Night 2 of the second Democratic debates

Biden gives a foreign policy speech in New York in July. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

DETROIT, Mich. — The biggest lesson Joe Biden learned from the first debate is that there are no rules of engagement at these things, and he's ready to throw down at tonight's debate, according to five senior campaign officials.

What to watch: Yes, he's going to keep contrasting himself with President Trump. But he's squarely focused on Sen. Kamala Harris, too, after the first debate in Miami.

  • "We’re not joking when we say he’s not going to let his record be mischaracterized," said one senior campaign official. "It’s not OK to label someone as a racist."
  • They were referring to Harris' line to Biden at the last debate that started with: "I know you're not racist, but ... "
  • "Some folks are willing to go places we didn’t think they’d go,” said another senior Biden campaign official, who said they were surprised by Harris' exchange with him because she's been friends with Biden for years.
  • His team maintains he won't make any personal attacks against other Democrats, but Biden himself has said he won't be as "polite" as last time.

Why it matters: Any time Biden has to spend defending his record from other candidates' attacks is less time he'll have to take on Trump — something he's been doing since he launched his campaign, signaling he views himself as the eventual nominee.

Between the lines: Although Harris saw a bump in polling after her spat with Biden, his team believes that was temporary.

  • "This is not a new dynamic," said one senior Biden campaign official. "You see candidates who rise and the balloon pops once there’s more information on that person."
  • After the Miami debates, Harris reached 20% in a Quinnipiac poll, but she's since leveled back out at around 11%.

Health care dominated last night's discussion, which Biden watched, and he plans to present that as one of the major differences between himself and Harris, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The bottom line: Biden might be ready for a fight, but Harris is surely not the only one to go after him and his record, and that could introduce new vulnerabilities he's not yet anticipating.

Go deeper: Democrats prepare for debate brawl with Biden.

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Debate night: Harris and Biden go head-to-head

Biden and Harris meet on-stage on July 31, 2019. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden greeted Sen. Kamala Harris on the debate stage Wednesday with a request: "Go easy on me, kid."

For the record: 5 senior campaign officials told Axios' Alexi McCammond that Biden was "ready to throw down" on Wednesday, after Harris' took control at the first Democratic debates in Miami. Harris and Biden went head-to-head tonight on these issues:

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4 big takeaways from Night 2 of the second Democratic debates

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The overwhelming strategy may have been “Kill Biden” for the second night of CNN’s Democratic debates, but the former vice president came far more prepared to fend off his critics on Wednesday night than he was in June.

The big picture: Kamala Harris picked up right where she left off at last month's debates, attacking Biden early and often for upholding the status quo with his health care plan — pivoting back to Biden even when asked to respond to comments made by other candidates. But it was clear that Biden did his homework, deflecting attacks with moderate success from Harris, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and others who came armed with opposition research.

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Kamala Harris' post-debate polling slump

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Detroit debates hosted by CNN. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

After June's Democratic presidential debates, Sen. Kamala Harris has gone from a high of 20% of Democratic voters who favor her to just 7% on Tuesday, per Quinnipiac.

Why it matters: That 13-point drop in just one month indicates Harris' post-debate "sugar-high" might not be aging well, despite the fact that she's firmly established herself in the top tier of candidates in several national 2020 polls.

Go deeperArrowAug 7, 2019