DETROIT — Former vice president Joe Biden attempted to regain his footing on the debate stage Wednesday night, offering a counterweight to some of the liberal shifts that have marked much of the Democratic presidential primary contest.

Health care was a dominant theme in the early portions of the exchange, with Biden arguing to alter the current health-care law while others on the stage – most prominently Sen. Kamala Harris of California – pushed for major changes.

“This is the single most important issue,” Biden said before addressing Harris. “And to be very blunt, and to be very straightforward: You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this.”

Harris released a proposal Monday that would allow for private insurance as long as it followed Medicare’s coverage rules. Biden’s campaign has accused her of being inconsistent in her positions and not forthcoming about the costs for middle-class taxpayers, saying that her proposal belongs in a “fantasy world.”

“Well, they’re probably confused because they’ve not read it,” Harris said onstage Wednesday, in response to Biden’s accusations of flip-flopping.

“You’re simply inaccurate in what you’re describing,” she added. “You should really think about what you’re saying but be reflective and understand people want access to health care.”

Wednesday’s exchange concluded the second round of 12 scheduled Democratic debates, with some campaigns hoping that they did enough to shake up a race that has largely been guided by four candidates: Biden, Harris, and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

If the first night was a showcase of the liberal-vs.-moderate split within the party, the second night put on display other divides and a thirst to have a nominee who represents the party’s growing diversity. Half of the 10 candidates onstage Wednesday at the Fox Theatre were minorities, making it a historically diverse debate lineup.

“Mr. President, this is America,” Biden said, addressing Trump, pointing to the diversity in race and experience on the stage. “And we are stronger together because of this diversity. Not in spite of it, Mr. President. We love it, we are not leaving it. We are here to stay. And we’re certainly not going to leave it to you.”

Biden was halting and lackluster in the first debate – at one point stopping himself mid-thought to say, “My time’s up, I’m sorry” – and his campaign was eager for him to deliver a more commanding performance that would remind voters of the steady stature he built over nearly five decades in public office.

“Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told Harris as she came onstage and shook his hand. She smiled and said, “You good?”

More than half of the candidates in the field are at risk of not meeting the polling and donor thresholds to qualify for the next round of debates in September. The first night of the second debate attracted only about half the television audience as the first night of the June debate.

From some of the first moments, the candidates seemed ready to go on the attack.

“There are good people on this stage, but there are real differences,” New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio said. “Joe Biden told wealthy donors that nothing fundamentally would change if he were president. Kamala Harris said she’s not trying to restructure society. Well, I am.”


From left, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stand for the National Anthem as they are introduced before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on Wednesday in Detroit. Paul Sancya/Associated Press

He added: “We will tax the hell out of the wealthy.”

But most of the contenders focused their most aggressive attacks on Trump.

“For the last three years, we’ve been consumed by a president who, frankly, doesn’t give a damn about your kids or mine,” said Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. “Mr. President, kids belong in classrooms, not cages. And they deserve something better than a bully in a White House. Let’s end this three-ring circus in Washington.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said Trump “is not behaving like a patriot.”

The president weighed in before Wednesday’s exchange with his views about the first night of the debate, tweeting: “Very low ratings for the Democratic Debate last night – they’re desperate for Trump.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had spent the week leading up to the debate forecasting his lines of attack, with an emphasis on Biden’s criminal justice record as a senator, which resulted in harsh penalties for offenders. Pointing to Biden’s signature 1994 crime bill, and the increase in African Americans put in prison as a result, Booker called him “an architect of mass incarceration.”

The debate marked a rematch between Biden and Harris. She directly attacked him in the June debate over his willingness to work with segregationist senators, particularly on measures to restrict court-mandated busing as a way to further integrate schools. Biden was caught off guard, with advisers pointing to various explanations, including that he had previously endorsed her in her 2016 Senate race and that she had been friends with his late son, Beau Biden.

Before Wednesday’s debate, Biden’s campaign aides insisted that he was ready for the onslaught of attacks, and that he had learned from the first debate in Miami that his record would come under deeper and more personal scrutiny than he had anticipated.

Bennet has tried to portray Biden as a bad dealmaker who was hoodwinked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has made equality and abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign.

Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who was housing secretary in the Obama administration, has pushed candidates on immigration. He appeared poised to criticize Biden for immigration policies.

During the June debate, most Democratic candidates raised their hands when asked whether they would decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, an issue that has since caused a rift in the party.

Although Democrats have uniformly criticized Trump’s immigration policies – which include family separations and mass deportation raids – they have been deeply divided over the appropriate legislative response to a surge of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Former president Barack Obama’s immigration policies also faced scrutiny, as candidates sought to distance themselves from his administration’s record of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants.

Obama remains widely popular within the Democratic Party, making any internal critiques of his record politically perilous for candidates vying to become the next president.

“Am I the only one that misses Barack Obama in this room?” Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, asked the debate audience in the lead-up to the exchange, as the crowd erupted in cheers.

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