Democratic presidential hopefuls US Vice President Joseph R. Biden (L), US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders and US Senator for California Kamala Harris (R) participate in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. - US Senator for California Kamala Harris confronts Former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden about racism. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Democratic presidential hopefuls US Vice President Joseph R. Biden (L), US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders and US Senator for California Kamala Harris (R) participate in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. - US Senator for California Kamala Harris confronts Former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden about racism. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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(CNN) —  

Democratic voters tuned into Thursday night’s debate searching for the candidate who could take down Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election – and many flipped on their television sets expecting that person to be front-runner Joe Biden.

In a surprise twist, it was former prosecutor Kamala Harris who took command of the debate stage, outshining her rivals time after time with succinct and fiery denunciations of the Trump administration’s policies on everything from the treatment of migrant children to the gaping income equality in this country—and even setting the tone early in the debate by reminding her colleagues that Americans don’t want a “food fight,” they want to know Democrats are “going to put food on the table.”

The drama of that exchange overshadowed the two-hour debate that encapsulated a broad array of policy debates, and a clear divide on the stage between candidates like Sanders and Warren who want to see the party veer in a more leftist direction with “Medicare-for-All” and the disappearance of private health insurance, and more moderate candidates like former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet who worry that the Democrats’ shift to left will endanger the parties chances of retaking the White House.

But it was the spell-binding moment when she challenged Joe Biden over his invocation of working with former colleagues who were segregationists and his record on busing that will be replayed hundreds of times.

With a withering series of questions and an emotional allusion to the fact that she was one of those little girls who rode those buses, Harris went a long way toward proving to Democratic voters that she can – as she often tells audiences – fiercely prosecute the case against Trump.

In this case, Biden was her foil.

Leaning heavily on the skills that made her so effective both as a prosecutor and as an interrogator of Trump nominees in Senate hearings over the past few years, she began quietly by alluding to the controversy that Biden stirred last week at a fundraiser when he noted that he had worked with segregationist senators in the 1970s and 1980s during what he framed as a less polarizing, more civil time in politics.

“Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you, when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said. “But I also believe – and it’s personal – it was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

As Biden stared straight ahead, looking somewhat pained, Harris continued by criticizing the former vice president for trying to prevent the Department of Education from enforcing school busing to integrate schools during the 1970s, invoking her own experience to make the point.

“That little girl was me,” Harris said with emotion swelling in her voice. “So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”

His voice rising, Biden attempted to strike back, calling Harris’ remarks a “mischaracterization of my position across the board.”

“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden replied. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education, that’s what I opposed.”

Harris brushed off Biden’s argument for local control, arguing the federal government must step in to keep civil rights from being violated “because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

The moment dealt the front-runner a serious setback that is likely to lead more than a few voters to question whether he is the best-equipped candidate to take on the current occupant of the White House. Biden eventually seemed to concede the exchange after attempting to list a long litany of civil and equal rights causes that he had championed, simply saying, “My time is up.”

Front-runners recede into the background

Despite strong answers out of the gate about income inequality in America and Trump’s economic policies that that favor the wealthiest Americans, Biden and Sanders, at times, seem to recede on the stage as Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivered composed, thoughtful and emotionally charged answers that have resonated with Democrats who are seeking a fresh generation of leadership.

One of the most striking answers from Buttigieg was about his frustration that he has not been able to do more to diversify the police force and soothe the racial tensions that flared after a white police officer shot and killed an African American man.

When asked about the lack of diversity in the police force, Buttigieg answered frankly: “I couldn’t get it done.”

He acknowledged that situation has been complicated by the fact that the officer didn’t have his body camera turned on.

“We are hurting. I could walk you through all of the things we have done as a community,” Buttigieg said. “All of the steps we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. When I look into his mother’s eyes, I