DETROIT — The attacks flew fast and furious, echoing off the soaring gilded ceiling of the Fox Theater here and rattling Democrats with fears that a protracted and messy intra-party fight will distract from the real battle royale against President Trump.
Over the course of two nights this week, a soccer team’s worth of low-polling candidates hit one front-runner after another as they tried to make a mark. Little-known moderates at the edges of the stage sought to deflate populist liberals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at its center. The barbed rivalry between Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris flared up again, with Cory Booker of New Jersey piling on the former vice president for good measure.
And, as if fighting solely with the cabal on stage were not enough, candidates such as Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio brought President Barack Obama’s legacy into the fray as they sought to land a blow on Biden, showing that even the popular former president no longer occupies the party’s demilitarized zone.
“There is a vast majority of American voters that just want to see an adult in the room and that was not demonstrated onstage,” said Stacy Pearson, a Democratic campaign consultant in Arizona. “They really were the parents fighting on the side of their kids’ football game.”
Political debates are messy, bruising exercises by definition. But as this week’s clashes turned remarkably negative, they showcased the unwieldy contours of a primary election in which candidates desperate to stand out from the pack are laying into each other — and sometimes Obama — instead of Trump, leaving some in the party worried that the jostling to take on an unpopular incumbent is unwittingly helping him.
“This idea that you would try to attack Biden by attacking the Obama legacy is not only politically stupid for their campaigns, I think it’s not helpful for the party,” said Rufus Gifford, a former ambassador in the Obama administration, and himself a veteran of the crowded congressional primary in the Massachusetts Third District. “We didn’t hear nearly enough about what Donald Trump is doing to this country, the stakes in this election, and what the candidates are doing to beat him.”
On Thursday, Democrats quickly tried to undo the damage, rushing to Obama’s defense and looking with relief toward the September debates. They hope a higher barrier for entry in both polling and donors will transform the circus into something more controlled, although there is no indication that the front-runners will hold back when they are all on the same stage in the next round.
Republicans, on the other hand, were delighted.
“I think it’s great,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Marco Rubio on his 2016 presidential bid. “Democrats at this point are a circular firing squad and Trump is safely removed.”
Some candidates on the debate stage on Tuesday and Wednesday night warned that the party risked hurting itself with the attacks. And key Democrats watching on TV seemed dumbfounded by a strategy that involved criticizing Obama.
“Be wary of attacking the Obama record,” Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under him, tweeted Wednesday night. “Build on it. Expand it. But there is little to be gained — for you or the party — by attacking a very successful and still popular Democratic President.”
Senate Democrats on Thursday deflected questions about the debate but rushed to defend Obama. “You compare the Obama administration to this administration, it’s night and day and Americans are realizing that,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said.
The second set of Democratic debates likely marked the end of the line for about half of the candidates who appeared, because they won’t meet the higher standards to qualify for the next round. That means self-help guru Marianne Williamson may not be there to warn about dark psychic forces. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper probably won’t get to mock Sanders’ arm-flailing. It’s likely de Blasio won’t be able to offer Biden redemption for his past positions.
“The further down the chain they are, the harder they were throwing,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, who said she was eager to see the front-runners face off against each other on a single stage.
“I’m looking forward to a debate with Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris on the stage at the same time,” she said. “That’s the debate the country deserves at this point.”
Biden, who was the focus of many of the attacks, appeared to agree.
“It’s not anybody’s fault the way it’s worked. There’s 20 candidates and that’s a good thing,” Biden told reporters Thursday. “But the idea that we don’t actually have a chance to explain our policies in less than one minute, and if you’re not asked a direct question about your policy you get 30 seconds, and if you’re not asked the 30 second one you get 15 seconds to intervene, that’s not a debate.”
There were parallels with the contentious 2016 Republican primary that devolved into a mess of insults, although the Democrats were civil compared to some of those moments. Trump took shots at President George W. Bush and used trademark nicknames to knock “low energy Jeb” Bush and “little Marco” Rubio off their perches as golden boys of the Republican establishment, and Rubio responded with crude taunts of his own.
Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign strategist in California who has worked with Republicans and Democrats, said he found it fascinating to see the same developments that once consumed Republicans now take over the Democratic Party.
“As a Republican, Ronald Reagan held a mythical status for 40 years. Obama held it for two years,” he said. “That is how fast the party has changed.”
Still, the 2016 Republican primary attacks did not prevent Trump from winning — and not all Democrats foresaw doom from their intra-party skirmish.
“I thought it was a very active debate, very interesting,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “The problem with it is, it is so far to the election. One doesn’t know what the fallout . . . is going to be.”
Dwight Bullard, political director of the New Florida Majority, a progressive group working to increase voter turnout, said it was important for Democrats to dig into the key differences over their policies before the general election and doubted the early debate would have much impact.
“If you ask someone who ultimately became an Obama voter in 2008 if they remember what he said in his first debates in 2007, I seriously don’t think they will,” he said. “My hope is that as the field dwindles down that voters become more engaged.”
The surge of candidates eager to defeat Trump is indicative of an energized party, even if it makes for a messy debate stage. Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Committee, which supports Warren, drew a distinction between the attacks in Tuesday’s debate, which largely dealt with policy, and the more personal ones on Wednesday night.
He pointed to campaign ads his organization has started to air against Trump that feature Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling him “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” in the 2016 primary.
“When we give the other side sound bites that have life after the primary, especially things that are character attacks, that’s what could potentially hurt us more in the general [election],” he said.