There’s a reason why more people were looking forward to watching the second of the two debate nights that kicked off the presidential primary season.
On Thursday evening, everything was elevated: the exchanges were more intense and substantive, the candidates were more engaged and engaging, and the performances were simply in a different league.
But the long-range impact of both of these night will rest on the singular and stellar performance of Senator Kamala Harris of California. She entered this week at the bottom of the pack of front-runners, and she will leave Miami as the person to beat in the party’s next set of debates at the end of July in Detroit. In between, her buzz could steal momentum from Senator Elizabeth Warren and, most likely, South Bend Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
When it comes to assessing each candidate, just like Wednesday, grades are based on two criteria: The candidate’s debate performance, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaign. (An example: A front-runner wants to keep that perch, so they might have wanted a boring debate.)
Senator Kamala Harris of California
After two nights and four hours of debate, there was one unquestionable winner: Harris. In a flawless performance, she told the story of her campaign, showed her empathy and toughness, and created the stand-out moment of both nights — her exchange with Biden on race and busing. Unlike others on stage, she didn’t appear desperate for more time, but she got it.
The perfect metaphor for her dominant performance came early on, when she rose above the fracas to say, “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” And every person on stage, whether they were behind the podium or the moderator’s table, stopped to listen to her.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
This may seem like a high score, but Gillibrand hit every goal she should have had this evening: She created digital-friendly moments that she can use to raise money and her profile on social media. She successfully injected herself into the discussion to get more airtime than her polling would suggest (she’s often at 1 percent or less in national surveys). It wasn’t perfect, and she was clearly fighting to get her words into the discussion, but she should be happy with her performance relative to expectations for her in the field.
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado
Like Gillibrand, Bennet punched well above his campaign’s weight. He ranked fifth in terms of talk time, just behind Buttigieg. And he tried to create a foil out of Bernie Sanders for much of the first hour.
The question is: Where does he go from here? It is unclear from where his new support would come (in other words, which candidate will lose ground in order for Bennet to gain?). Regardless, Bennet did what he probably came to accomplish — piqued enough interest to secure a spot in the second round of debates that begin in September.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
In the beginning part of the debate, it seemed like Sanders was the one who was under pressure — and not former Vice President Joe Biden, the race’s frontrunner.
Overall, Sanders was fine. He didn’t mess up, but also didn’t gain. He is in the same spot as he was yesterday, in a complicated race.
Representative Eric Swalwell of California
On the one hand, if you compare Swalwell with the Marianne Williamson, who flanked the candidates on the other side of the stage, he had an amazing night. He had a practiced challenge to Biden, who wisely didn’t take the bait. On the other hand, Swalwell answered why he was running (generational change), but he couldn’t answer why voters looking for that should pick him over a younger and more popular choice (Buttigieg).
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg was solid in his answers on a number of topics including immigration, China, and for the most part, on the police shooting of a black man in his city. But his exchanges with other candidates about troubles on the homefront could have gone more smoothly. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper got a dig in, and Swalwell’s call for Buttigieg to fire his police chief seemed to leave the mayor stunned.
But the biggest reason why Buttigieg had a bad night is that Harris had such an obviously great one. A performance like that means she could gain ground on him quickly.
Spiritual author Marianne Williamson
For the first 45 minutes of the debate, she didn’t get a single question. And, yes, when she spoke, things often got a little odd. (If you had New Zealand on your debate bingo card, then good for you.) But she had a clear, concise summary of why some people are drawn to her, and she may have grown her niche a little.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
On paper, Biden is the frontrunner by nearly every metric. But he didn’t look the part in his first debate.
Sure, many expected Biden to be on the defensive all night — but his defense was, well, odd. For example, when Mitt Romney was the frontrunner, he went on offense and reclaimed as much time as possible (Biden often cited the time limits for himself and others). When Hillary Clinton was attacked as a frontrunner, she would talk about core values to the party’s the base and then get into specific plans.
Biden defended himself with lists of prior acts and accomplishments. And while one could see why he wants to associate his candidacy with Barack Obama, there are two obvious points here: First, he is not Barack Obama, and secondly, the party is already moving in a different direction from the age of Obama.
Yes, Biden survived tonight. But, no, he was not the better for it. In particular, his embrace of the “states rights and local community” route on school integration is going to hurt for a while.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Yang could have had a great night. But NBC totally shut him out with the fewest questions and the second lowest talk time. The network doesn’t get all the blame, though, because Yang could have injected himself into the conversation like his competition. He entered the debate on the edge, teetering between niche and serious candidate. But the takeaway was that he was the guy who didn’t wear a tie.
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper
Many Americans were seeing candidates on the stage for the first time, and so they were asking themselves: Who is this person, and why should I care? Hickenlooper’s performance didn’t provide answers to those questions in any way that will boost his campaign.
However, in a dramatic twist, it was fascinating to see the former governor upstaged by his protege and former chief of staff, Bennet, on national television.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp