Former vice president Joe Biden emerged Friday from his best debate performance of the campaign on steadier ground at the top of the Democratic presidential field after a summer that saw him losing some of his lead in the polls.
But he remained a wobbly front-runner after demonstrating yet again his propensity for gaffes and rambling answers — including one odd reference to a record player — that have fueled questions about his age and mental acuity.
Still, with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren rising in recent weeks, Biden showed on the debate stage in Houston that he could go on the offensive, delivering sharp criticisms of her and his other top rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, on health care.
And Biden, 76, even gained some sympathy after a roundly criticized attack by Julián Castro that questioned the former vice president’s memory.
“Last night I thought was a good night,” Biden told a fund-raising crowd in Houston Friday afternoon. “I think I could have done better. I will do better, God willing.”
As Biden acknowledged, his performance wasn’t perfect. But it wasn’t terrible either, political analysts said, as he kept to the first rule for a presidential front-runner: Don’t do anything that hurts your chances.
“He passed that test with flying colors,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Biden supporter. “He was feisty, he was energetic, he was passionate, he was Joe Biden.”
After Biden’s shaky performances in the first two debates, the bar was low for him as all the top contenders finally shared the same stage, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. He succeeded in that he didn’t perform too badly, despite his tendency to ramble, she said.
“It is important to keep in mind that is what Donald Trump does,” Lawless said. “So I am not particularly concerned that he won’t be able to hold his own against Donald Trump.”
But to get to a general election face-off with Trump, Biden will have to overcome the two progressive senators, Warren and Sanders, who flanked him on the stage. They are the next two highest-polling candidates in the Democratic primary.
Biden came out swinging against them Thursday night on health care, defended his record as part of the Obama presidency, and at one point even refused to give in to the clock as he had done in the other debates.
In launching his offensive over Medicare For All against Warren and Sanders, Biden came prepared with a zinger for each of them.
“I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie -- well, I’m for Barack,” Biden said of Warren, as he harped on the costs of Sanders’ proposal, which Warren has embraced, while highlighting his own attempt to build off President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act instead.
Sanders argued that companies would step in to boost the pay of union workers, offsetting the costly private health care benefits they would no longer need because of the new government-run system he envisions.
But Biden was ready with a sharp response.
“For a socialist,” Biden shot at Sanders, “you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”
Closely linking himself to Obama over health care was in keeping with an ad Biden released hours before the debate touting their partnership and calling the passage of the Affordable Care Act a proud day.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” Biden said during the debate in response to criticism that he has declined to defend some of the administration’s controversial policies. “That’s where I stand.”
But Biden also had some cringe-worthy moments. In a long-winded answer to a question about how he would repair the damage of slavery, he rambled into a discussion of inequality in early childhood education.
“Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words,” he said, seeming to suggest ways to close the achievement gap between children from low and affluent socioeconomic backgrounds.
One of the sharpest exchanges was between Biden and Castro, who served as Obama’s Housing and Urban Development secretary. In an exchange over their health care plans, Castro, 44, accused Biden of having a poor memory.
“Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” said Castro, pointing to differences in their plans about how people could access government-funded health care. “I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”
Biden’s campaign called it a “cheap shot” and a “low blow.” Politifact rated Castro’s comments “mostly false,” other presidential candidates were mostly critical of what they saw as a personal attack, and many pundits saw it as out of line. But many young Latino policy leaders argued Castro was unfairly criticized as “mean,” and said they were grateful that he has not shied away from aggressive questioning of Biden on the role he played in Obama’s deportation policies.
“There are candidates who have literally yelled on stage,” tweeted Mayra Maciás, executive director of Latino Victory, a progressive political organization that endorsed Castro. “But guess if you’re a man of color you aren’t allowed to show any emotion, let alone when calling someone out on something as serious as access to healthcare.”
Another candidate, Senator Cory Booker, echoed Castro’s concerns about Biden on CNN after the debate.
“I think that we are at a tough point right now because there’s a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling,” Booker said.
On Friday, Castro denied his comment was a cheap shot, saying he respected Biden.
Asked if he thought Biden was too old to be president, Castro said he did not. “I mean, he has been around for a long time, OK,” Castro told CNN. “When we are up there, we are up there to debate.”
Aaron Sanchez, a history professor at Mountain View College in Dallas, wondered how Biden could maintain his lead when this Democratic campaign is supposed to be about fashioning a new vision for the nation and representing a diverse and increasingly young electorate.
“Biden’s strength is based on this very immeasurable metric of electability, but no one is that excited about him,” Sanchez said. “And his performance [Thursday] night doesn’t give us any reason to be that much more excited about him.”