RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It was the same stage in Miami - many of the same questions but different Democrats, all vying to become the next president of the United States, each fighting to stand out from the crowd.
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PETE BUTTIGIEG: As the youngest guy on the stage, I feel like I probably ought to contribute to the generational...
BERNIE SANDERS: As part of Joe's generation, let me respond.
MARTIN: At one point, things got really heated, and Senator Kamala Harris clearly saw an opportunity to land a rhetorical punch.
KAMALA HARRIS: Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're going to put food on their table.
MARTIN: It wasn't the only score of the night for the senator from California. She went directly after former Vice President Joe Biden in a way that we hadn't seen before from her. NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow watched it all unfold in Miami, and they join us now. Hi.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So, Mara, we'll get to the specifics of the Biden-Harris tension. But overall, how did you watch this? I mean, how did this debate compare with the earlier one Wednesday? Was the tone more aggressive?
LIASSON: Yes, much more combative. There were lots of contrasts. There was the ideological contrast, the pushback against Bernie Sanders' mandatory medical for all - Medicare-for-all plan that would end private health plans. There were generational challenges. You just heard a little bit of that.
The biggest difference last night was that there was a breakout moment. That was Kamala Harris challenging the front-runner, Joe Biden, about comments he made about busing. And in the process, she elevated herself into a plausible challenger to Donald Trump. Biden came off as defensive, not so surefooted. And for a lot of people, the key moment was when Biden stopped himself, instead of letting the moderators enforce the time rules, and said, quote, "Actually, my time is up. I'm sorry."
MARTIN: Which is something, we should say, candidates on debate stages never do.
MARTIN: They always go over. They push it to the max. So, Scott, let's talk specifically about this moment. I want to play some tape. I mean, we - I'll just set this up. This began with Senator Harris calling out the former vice president for comments that he made about how he used to work with two segregationist lawmakers. Let's listen.
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HARRIS: I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it is personal - and I was actually very - it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
MARTIN: She's making it personal there. And then she broadens out this criticism and attacks his broader record on civil rights, didn't she?
DETROW: Yes, she did. And, you know, to paraphrase in a radio-friendly way, one of Joe Biden's most famous lines - this was a big deal. In recent weeks, candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been starting to go after Biden. And in that time, Harris has, by and large, refrained. You know, when reporters ask, she would repeatedly say, I'm not - I'm going to speak for myself. I'm not going to go after Joe Biden tonight.
Last night, that changed in a really big way. And her campaign was not subtle about the fact that this was a planned moment. They had T-shirts ready to sell online, right after a debate, with a picture of Harris as a second-grader, getting to that statement about how she, as a second-grader in Berkeley, Calif., was one of the early students to integrate classrooms and that the busing issue was personal for her.
The Biden campaign knew that this was a serious moment that they had to respond to. And they had a lot of supporters talking to reporters afterwards, including Congressman Cedric Richmond, who's probably one of his most prominent African American supporters, saying - defending Biden's record and also saying, look. He was the vice president to the first African American president. They had a close relationship. They backed each other up. That should matter in this context. Biden was arguing on the stage, like he has for years, that his concern was federal mandates versus local decision making. But Harris' response was, look, it often takes federal action to fix civil rights problems.
MARTIN: So, Mara, I mean, was there any sense, among Biden supporters, that he revealed anything new to voters in general about how he would govern?
LIASSON: Not so much that he revealed anything new. There's no doubt that Biden supporters were disappointed with his performance. They don't think it's a deal-breaking moment. But, as Scott said, his staff was out in full force in the spin room last night, which is what happens when a campaign has a lot of 'splaining (ph) to do.
LIASSON: And they were out there saying, judge him by the totality of his record on civil rights. He stopped the school-to-prison pipeline. And Barack Obama, first African American president, chose him to be his running mate. But there's no doubt that he hurt himself. And he ended the debate looking like a more vulnerable front-runner than he had when he came in.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the guy who currently is vying for second place in the race, Bernie Sanders, because he was one of two people who raised their hand when the moderators asked about Medicare-for-all or whether or not anyone on the stage would abolish private insurance. Sanders and Kamala Harris raised their hand. But I want to play what Sanders had to say.
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SANDERS: We will have Medicare-for-all when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of.
LESTER HOLT: All right, Ms. Williamson...
MARTIN: Scott, where did the rest of the candidates fall in this?
DETROW: You know, there was a lot of pushback on the stage to Sanders' approach of replacing private health insurance with one big federal program - people like Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, warning, it's too extreme. It would not work, and it would turn voters off of the idea and the Democratic nominee.
Here's what's interesting to me, though - the whole conversation was on Bernie Sanders' terms. Even that criticism came with acknowledgments that Sanders is right about the problems in the current health care system. He is setting the tone of the health care debate in this race. And health care is one of the top issues that voters care about and that candidates are talking about.
MARTIN: Mara, final thoughts from you?
LIASSON: Well, my final thought was that there was a real generational challenge to Biden. At one point, Eric Swalwell, one of the low-polling candidates, said it's - that he heard a speech 32 years ago about passing the torch to a new generation. And the person who gave that speech 32 years ago was Joe Biden. But I think it does show you that there is a new generation in the Democratic Party. It's younger. It's diverse. And yesterday, last night, it was on full display.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow for us.
Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.