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On the second night of the second Democratic primary debate, Joe Biden was center stage, and took the brunt of challenger attacks. Biden was prepped.
USA TODAY

Corrections and clarifications: This story originally misidentified Cory Booker and Andrew Yang. The article has been updated to clarify that Booker is a senator and Yang is an entrepreneur.

WASHINGTON – There were audience interruptions. The Democratic frontrunner struggled to hold his own. And the discussion of Democratic voters’ top issue got bogged down during Wednesday night’s debate.

Here are the winners and losers for night two of the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit, Michigan:

Winners

Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker had a good night.

Booker has been struggling to gain traction in polling, repeatedly landing in the single digits. But during Wednesday night’s discussion, the New Jersey Democrat came out swinging and managed to stay on top.

He continued to hit former Vice President Joe Biden on his criminal justice record, a feud he began last week. Booker also slammed Biden on his stance on immigration, saying he’s playing into President Donald Trump’s hands on the issue.

One of the strongest audience responses he received was on voter suppression. Booker said that Democrats lost Michigan because Republicans and Moscow had both been targeting African American voters in the state in an effort to suppress that crucial voting bloc.

Booker, one of two Black 2020 presidential candidates along with California Sen. Kamala Harris, also noted that Black voters — in particular, Black women voters — need to be more valued by the Democratic Party. That drew some of the biggest applause of the night from the audience there in the theater in Detroit.

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Criminal justice

Criminal justice took center stage Wednesday as a policy issue discussed by the group of 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Booker continued to challenge Biden on his record, criticizing the former vice president for helping write the 1994 crime bill that is now regarded by many as having done significant damage to communities of color.

“This is one of those instances where the house was set on fire, and you claimed responsibility for those laws,” Booker said.

“You can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire,” he continued. “We have got to have far more bold action on criminal justice reform.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also took on Harris for her record, challenging the senator for some of her actions while she was California’s attorney general. 

“She put over 1,500 in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said. 

The killing of Eric Garner, and Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer responsible for the slaying who is still on the force, also occupied some of the critical moments during the discussion of criminal justice issues. Both the New Yorkers on the stage, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, said that Pantaleo should be held accountable for Garner’s death.

“He should be fired. He should be fired now,” Gillibrand said of Pantaleo. “When [Garner] begged for breath. When you know because you have a video. When you know he said ‘I can’t breath’ so many times, over and over again. When you know [Pantaleo] used an illegal chokehold. That person should be fired.”

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Andrew Yang

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang may have new members of the Yang Gang after his performance on the debate stage Wednesday night.

After a lackluster performance in the first debate last month, Yang was more prepared this time around. He capitalized on every opportunity presented to him during the few questions directed at him by the moderators. He was succinct and repeatedly got positive responses from the Detroit audience. He made several jokes during his opening and closing remarks but also knew when to make a serious turn.

“We’re up here with makeup on our faces, and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show,” Yang said during his closing remarks. “It’s one reason we elected a reality TV star as our president.”

Yang was also quick to relate much of his answers about policy issues back to his universal basic income proposal, which critics online then joked about.

Julián Castro

Former Obama Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro came ready to display and explain his policy positions and policy differences with the other candidates — and to take on Biden, the frontrunner.

One of the strongest moments of the night occurred when he called out Biden for the Obama administration’s stance on immigration, specifically the high number of deportations that occurred under former President Barack Obama’s watch. When Biden responded that he hadn’t heard from Castro at the time, the former San Antonio mayor said: “One of us has learned the lessons of the past and one hasn’t.”

Another moment that drew applause and cheers from the Detroit audience was when Castro was the first candidate during the discussion to bring up the death of Eric Garner. Castro said Pantaleo, who held Garner in a chokehold that proved to be fatal, should be fired.

“He knew what he was doing, that he was killing Eric Garner,” Castro said of Pantaleo. “That police officer should be off the street.”

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Losers

Joe Biden

The former vice president struggled to take the heat directed at him as the frontrunner in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field.

Despite having a strong start, Biden was hit from all sides by many of the other nine Democrats on stage Wednesday night.

He was criticized for his stance on criminal justice, on which he was accused of flip-flopping . He also took incoming fire for past views on women and the economy and fumbled through his stance on immigration when challenged by both Castro and De Blasio, New York City’s mayor. 

And Biden struggled at times with how to utilize and make sense of the legacy of former President Barack Obama. 

Biden defended the Affordable Care Act, the trademark legislation of Obama’s presidency that many of the 2020 candidates now want to replace with more expansive approaches to providing health care coverage. When confronted about his criminal justice record, Biden noted that Obama “knew exactly who I was,” adding that the former president “chose me and he said it was the best decision he made.”

The former vice president also dodged when asked directly whether he supported the hundreds of thousands of deportations that occured during the final years of Obama’s tenure. When Biden didn’t answer, Booker fired back.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker said to Biden. “You invoke President Obama more than anyone in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then duck it when it’s not.”

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Kamala Harris

It would’ve been good for Sen. Kamala Harris if she had another breakout moment like the one during last month’s debate when she challenged Biden over his stance on bussing decades ago. But that didn’t happen for Harris this time around.

At the start of the debate, Harris was slammed repeatedly by many of the other candidates — especially Biden — for a health care plan she introduced ahead of the debate. At times, she stumbled in finding her footing in defending her plan, just days after its release and when the attacks and criticisms should’ve been anticipated.

Harris also seemed ill-prepared to respond to attacks on her record by the other candidates. When confronted about her record by De Blasio, Gillibrand and others, Harris instead repeatedly directed criticisms at Biden.

That strategy fell flat when she was confronted by Gabbard, who criticized Harris’ record as California’s attorney general.

“She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor of the state of California,” Gabbard said of Harris, a line that was met with cheers.

The California Democrat responded that she was proud of her work changing the criminal justice system in California, which she said was used as a model.

“The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard responded. “The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.”

Health care

Although it was the first topic of Wednesday night’s debate, the discussion did little to explain where the various candidates stand on the issue, a contrast with the health care discussion on Tuesday night.

Gillibrand argued in favor of Medicare for all. But much of the discussion was centered on Harris’ plan, which many of the candidates on the debate stage criticized.

The discussion didn’t deal very much with actual plans and policies, and, instead, served more to pit candidates against each other. The health care conversation didn’t go into details, as it did during Tuesday’s night debate. 

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Hecklers tried to steal the spotlight

During Bill de Blasio’s opening remarks, a chant interrupted him: “Fire Pantaleo.”

The same chant broke out again during Cory Booker’s opening remarks, but was louder and longer. Booker paused during his remarks as the “Fire Pantaleo” chant continued. (Activist Tamika Mallory later tweeted that she and a few others were being escorted out and began chanting “Fire Pantaleo” and “I can’t breathe,” which happened to be during Booker’s remarks.)

Later in the evening, chants of “3 million deportations” broke out while Julián Castro confronted Joe Biden over on the Obama administration’s immigration record.

Movimiento Cosecha was reportedlbehind the chant, which lasted several seconds and interrupted Biden’s remarks.

This is the first time protesters have interrupted a debate during this election cycle.

It’s unclear whether the protests, heckling and chanting will become a trend as the Democratic primary season progresses.

Contributing: John Fritze Maureen Groppe Michael Collins Ledyard King

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