It started out Wednesday night as Dullsville (actually it happened in Detroit — practically the same thing).
It featured Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and a supporting cast of eight other Democratic nomination seekers.
The former vice president, having practiced politics since 1972, had what should have been a simple task: to show he has the right stuff to be president and is prepared to lead the nation somewhere specific, where Democratic voters actually want to go.
He did neither. Not even close.
Fire in the belly? Not even a wisp of smoke.
He leads President Trump in the polls and apparently thinks his party will conclude that it just has to coronate him — an event that doesn’t require beforehand hard work, long hours and endless preparation.
What was close was the time — less than a month — that passed between this second lack-luster performance and his dismal display of distracted confusion in the NBC debate in June.
Is Joe’s candidacy finished? Not yet. He’ll meet the thresholds of 2 percent in four polls and 130,000 unique donors and so will appear in the next debate, on Sept. 12 at Houston’s Texas Southern University that mostly students of African descent have attended.
In the coming days, Joe may even still lead the pack in the polls — you don’t have to have watched the debates to tell pollsters how you rank Joe and his rivals.
But in the next debate, he’ll be part of the supporting cast, with Democratic moderates — both of them — rooting for his miraculous comeback.
In fact, in the third debate, Joe, Kamala, probably Cory Booker and whoever else may have survived the Tuesday-Wednesday Detroit debates will be the supporting cast for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
They were the top performers on Tuesday, when witnessing the clash of all 10 personalities on stage was more interesting somehow.
What may explain the somehow is that Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren, Mayor Buttigieg and the other seven slapped each around other over ideology, principles and the philosophy of governance, more so than on details of particular policy proposals.
Wednesday saw the contestants arguing over whose health care proposals is the worst among the 10 wannabes on stage.
Almost incomprehensibly, there were lots of stumbles by candidates, especially by the very ones who can’t afford stumbles — like Joe, 76, who for eight years was a heartbeat away from the presidency, and Kamala, 54, California’s junior U.S. senator and former attorney general.
She again revealed her prosecutorial personality. She flung its jagged wrath at a withered-looking, defenseless Joe so relentlessly Wednesday that some in an NBC focus group said they had begun to resent her and sympathize with him.
Last month, after she had gutted amiable Joe like am experienced deer hunter, his lead over all the other Democrats plummeted and her numbers rose. For a while. Then hers fell back, and his recovered.
Leading up to Wednesday’s debate, everyone and his brother and sister seemed to agree that this rusty old pol named Joe couldn’t afford back-to-back amateur-hour outings.
But moderates and women of African heritage in the Democratic Party are and may still be high on Joe.
Never mind that Tweet Master Donald J. Trump can’t wait to start making minced meat out of Joe in the fall 2020 debates, should he manage to hang on through the coming Democratic debates and win the nomination.
His flat-footed non-response to this stinger from Cory Booker hinted at the mangling Joe will be in for should he ever get to go mano a mano with the sting master himself in 2020: “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.’ “
A couple more things about Wednesday’s kerfuffle. One disputant who came in low and slow in the June debates but finally came alive on Wednesday was Mr. Booker, 50, the junior senator from New Jersey.
His ease in the spotlight, comfort with words and African lineage should make him a valuable veep get for whoever snags the Democratic nomination.
The biggest surprise was Andrew Yang, 44, a marvelously articulate, mostly level-headed sounding, highly intelligent entrepreneur, attorney, philanthropist and founder of Venture for America who says he’s the opposite of President Trump — “an Asian man who likes math.”
Of course, we all know it’s not possible for a rich businessman with no political experience to win a major party’s presidential nomination and go on to win the White House.
(Psst. Don’t tell the Democrats this, but polls aside, Mr. Yang is probably the only Democrat running who would actually stand a good chance against Mr. Trump in the fall 2020 debate encounters.)
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