The initial debates of the US 2020 presidential election offered the first pinpricks of clarity in a messy Democratic primary.
Three scrums-worth of contenders have pushed themselves forward as potential nominees to take on US President Donald Trump. Even with 10 candidates on stage in each of the two NBC-hosted debates, a few stragglers missed out.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden went into the debates with about 30 per cent support in polls; senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders rated second and third; Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg were a bit further back.
The quick-fire debate format didn't suit Biden. He overstuffed his responses with policy positions. He looked flustered. His usual presence and time taken to deliver a crafted line were not there.
In contrast, Harris, Warren and Buttigieg managed to demonstrate a natural command. The first test is whether a candidate can appear presidential: it seems the party has more options than Biden and Sanders.
After a two-term presidency and shattering defeat, the party is going through a renewal. And it is not clear as yet what it will produce.
In the 2008 contest, it appeared to be Hillary Clinton's time, but the party found the claims of a new senator, Barack Obama, too hard to ignore. During 2016, the Republicans had a crowded field with candidates who could have taken the party in different directions. Trump harnessed activist forces within the party to make it his own.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The activist energy in the Democratic Party is on the progressive left but many of the voters are more moderate and want a candidate who can beat Trump. That candidate so far has been Biden, who has shown strength in polling with older voters, black voters and working-class voters the party needs to win back key swing states. It would be foolish to write off Biden after one debate. But Obama and Trump demonstrated that what appeals to voters is not necessarily the "safe" choice. Many of those swing voters went for both men.
Warren's colours are plastered to the progressive mast. Harris and Buttigieg are following more obviously in Obama's footsteps. As a candidate, Obama managed to highlight his liberalism over his underlying moderation, inspiring both the necessary excitement but also confidence, with his story as the son of a black man and white Midwestern woman at the core.
Harris, 54, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, has struggled previously to find the right blend of boldness and pragmatism, but not on Friday. She used her prosecutor skills to devastating effect, showing she can come at the king, whether he be Biden or Trump. Buttigieg, 37, is gay, a former Rhodes Scholar and veteran, and now a mayor in a conservative state. He has a calm presence and exceptional communication skills.
The task of unseating a sitting president could require a top-draw combo in the manner of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992. It's early days but the potential for an exciting but risky ticket is there.