early and often

The First Debate-Night Lesson: This Race Is Not All About Joe Biden

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If your debate-night drinking game revolved around mentions of the name “Joe Biden,” you’re reading this while sober, or at least not while hungover. The former vice-president remains the front-runner in the race, far ahead of the pack in polling and attention on cable news, but any illusions that the 2020 contest is shaped around him were shattered on Wednesday night, when not one of the candidates — or moderators — mentioned him.

For weeks leading up to the debate kickoff, campaign operatives previewed strategies that involved attacking the favorite to get a foothold in the national conversation, often from candidates eager to prove their credentials with the party’s progressive wing. They’d go after his Hyde Amendment flip-flop, or his comments on working with segregationist senators, or his age. Candidates would rip at Biden as a representative of an old way of doing business even when he was not on the stage (he’ll debate Thursday), they said, because he looms so large over the race that tearing him down would be necessary.

But the lack of questions about (or long-distance shots aimed at) Biden demonstrates that his opponents believe there’s little upside in engaging him now. They see the shape of his appeal as being different from that of the front-runners we’ve seen in the last few presidential races, in which the Trumpian, Clintonian kind of front-runner becomes the contest’s center of gravity and forces others to respond to everything he or she does. It was Beto O’Rourke who faced most of Wednesday’s heat, after opposing candidates determined his fall would be to their immediate benefit, and deemed his voters more easily winnable.

This could all change Thursday. Biden’s team has long been planning to play defense against attacks, but also to mount a Thursday-night offensive oriented around his vision for governing. “You hear a lot about Joe Biden, but you don’t necessarily hear about his policies a lot, okay? Guys?” said Symone Sanders, a senior Biden advisor, in the spin room after the debate, gesturing accusingly to the gathered press. “So tomorrow will be his opportunity to speak directly to the American people.”

Yet when two hours of debate were over, with not even a nod to the former vice-president, his rivals’ calculations revealed themselves: He is popular enough with Democratic voters that antagonizing him would backfire, they believe, especially when each of the candidates is aiming to win over a big chunk of his voters down the line. But he will fade on his own, they hope, so there is little realistic benefit to trying to make that happen now, artificially.

Instead, the only candidate not on the stage to get any significant mention was Bernie Sanders, who featured in moderator questions and candidate answers, particularly on health care. (“Senator Sanders’s ideas that he has expressed throughout his career and as part of his campaign were echoed tonight by nearly every candidate onstage, and that shows these ideas are the most powerful ideas to beat Donald Trump,” said Sanders’s campaign chief of staff, Ari Rabin-Havt, after the debate, throwing up his hands and smiling when asked why Sanders’s name got more airtime than Biden’s.)

The night’s most memorable clashes featured Julián Castro on O’Rourke and John Delaney on those in the field standing to his right. The result was a shapeless but occasionally tense two hours featuring Elizabeth Warren maintaining her place in the front of voters’ minds, punctuated by energetic moments from Cory Booker and Castro.

That was just fine with the candidates scheduled to be onstage with Biden on Thursday, who may now calculate that they could benefit by standing out as one of the few to actually go after the biggest name in the race.

But it’s not likely to bother Biden — whose staffers were immediately mobbed by reporters in the spin room when the debate finished — at least not yet. An hour after the show ended, a Twitter representative revealed that even though the former VP wasn’t onstage and wasn’t mentioned once, he was still the fifth-most-mentioned candidate of the night.

The First Debate Lesson: The Race Is Not All About Joe Biden