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The case for Joe Biden in 2020 may come down to this. Whose ramblings would you rather hear from the Oval Office?

Biden’s or Donald Trump’s?

During Thursday night’s debate in Houston, the three candidates who have been leading the polls played themselves. Bernie Sanders was wild-eyed and angry. Elizabeth Warren was cool, smart, and collected. And Biden was Biden — somewhat more focused but still prone to confusing riffs and meanderings.

As presidential material, that makes him lovable if you love him, worrisome if you don’t. Overall, Biden’s performance was strong enough to maintain the status quo. He’s allegedly the Electable One. Warren is gaining strength. And Sanders is stewing over the unfairness of it all.

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Biden looked strongest in the beginning, when he made his case for expanding the Affordable Care Act and took on Sanders and Warren over their support for ditching it in favor of Medicare for All. Of Warren, Biden said, “She’s with Bernie — well, I’m for Barack.” When Sanders started his familiar ode to health care in Canada, Biden said, “This is America.”

However, a generally lively and thoughtful discussion turned uncomfortable when Julián Castro attacked Biden. The former Obama cabinet member claimed Biden said his plan would not automatically enroll people in the public health care option. When Biden said that wasn’t true, Castro shot back: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” The crack came across as a clumsy effort to suggest the 76-year-old Biden was losing his grip, or at least up past his bedtime. At that moment in time, Castro’s accusation was wrong. According to fact-checkers, Biden had said, “Anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled” in the Medicare option.

If the debate didn’t change the big picture, it did give candidates in the second tier a chance to break through, and make Democrats start to think about a ticket. What about Warren and Beto O’Rourke or Warren and Pete Buttigieg? How about Biden and Amy Klobuchar or Biden and Kamala Harris? Where would Cory Booker fit in? However, after Houston, it seems fair to say Castro won’t be on any ticket with Biden at the top.

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But will it really be Biden at the top?

Sandwiched between Sanders and Warren, he was literally the man in the middle. At the start of the debate, it was a decent look, and he worked it reasonably well. But his performance dipped as the debate dragged on.

Everyone’s energy level sapped toward the end. But that was especially true for Biden. An answer he gave about Afghanistan was incomprehensible, as he described it as “three different countries” — which sounds more like Iraq. And Biden’s response to a question about schools and segregation was even more baffling.

Near the end of the debate, moderator Linsey Davis confronted him with words he said back in 1975: “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” Biden started off by acknowledging “institutional segregation in this country,” then rambled on about teachers, the problems that come from home, and the need to put on “the record player at night” so kids hear words.

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Meanwhile, as Democrats debated in Houston, President Trump delivered what The New York Times described as “a rambling and disjointed 68-minute speech accusing the news media and the “radical left” of wanting to destroy America.

“Whether you like me or not, it doesn’t matter. You have to elect me; you have no choice,” Trump said. He also went on to talk about his dislike for energy-efficient light bulbs, telling his audience, “I always look orange and so do you.”

Maybe Biden’s ramblings aren’t so bad after all.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.