Editor’s Note: Bill McGowan is the founder and CEO of Clarity. He is the author of “Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.” Follow him on Twitter @BillMcGowan22. Juliana Silva is a strategic communications adviser at Clarity Media Group, a global communications coaching firm based in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The big expectation heading into Round Two of the Democratic presidential debates was that Joe Biden was going to be forced to play the role of pinata to the nine others occupying the stage. The only question that remained was, who was going to smack hard enough to make the candy fall out.
Senator Kamala Harris gave a clear and forceful answer to that question.
The fireworks between Harris and Biden, like most moments of riveting confrontation, seemed to suck all the air out of the room and all the electability out of the other eight candidates.
The stickiness of Harris’ attack on Biden’s praise of segregationist Senate colleagues with her “I am that little girl” moment – her anecdote about her experience riding the bus to school – was the clear headline grabber of the evening. But if it was her only memorable line, she wouldn’t have been so unanimously declared the outright winner.
Her success had a simple equation. Take well-crafted, quotable statements, throw in an element of thoughtfulness to give the illusion of spontaneity, and add a passionate delivery that showcases her conviction – and what you get is a commanding performance that inevitably will translate into better poll numbers and more campaign contributions.
Her other stand-out lines were mostly some form of wordplay:
“America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” And, “The rules have been written in the favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.”
The other memorable line in her closing statement was what we call a creative label: “The 3 a.m. agenda,” indicating that she would focus on those daily issues that wake the average American up in the middle of the night. The phrase may have been a nod to a 2008 Hillary Clinton ad, but it was nonetheless uniquely memorable – so much so that we’ve heard prospective voters using that very label themselves in post-debate interviews with the media.
While Senator Harris cast a long shadow over just about everyone else on stage, there were nine other candidates who tried to have moments of their own. Some more memorable than others.
Pete Buttigieg - He came across wise and supremely confident in his knowledge.
Good Moment: Calling out what he sees as the hypocrisy of religious conservatives: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Bad Moment: Getting caught flat-footed and speechless when he was criticized by Eric Swalwell for not firing his police chief.
Because all the rest of the candidates became mere footnotes, their performances can be summed up in one sentence.
Kirsten Gillibrand – She came across overly-scripted by masquerading condensed versions of her stump speeches for her answers.
Bernie Sanders – He has allowed his passion to stray into ranting territory, making him the Howard Beale of politics (“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”).
Eric Swalwell – He gets the “cheesiest line of the night award” for saying, “when I’m not changing diapers, I’m changing Washington.”
Marianne Williamson – She performed brilliantly in the role of the Debate Crasher. Her claim that she’d defeat Trump because she was going to “harness love” was a real eye-roller.
Andrew Yang – He clearly left his grip on reality at home, along with his necktie, saying he would “build a much broader coalition to beat Donald Trump.”
John Hickenlooper – He seemed out of the loop with his repetitive harangue about socialism.
Michael Bennet – He came to life on the immigration border issue by likening the separation of children to what his mother endured during the Holocaust in Poland.
Joe Biden – The best you can say is that Biden’s performance was uneven. The real Joe Biden has never met a time cue he didn’t ignore, often speaking past his allotted time. Yet in this first debate, he seemed almost relieved when his time was up – to the point of stopping answers in mid-sentence. Even more unfortunate was what he said when the clock ran down: “My time is up. I’m sorry”. Poor choice of words.
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Of course, Team Biden can take solace in knowing that he’s not the first septuagenarian candidate to be attacked for being too old in the wake of a bungled debate performance. In 1984 Ronald Reagan seemed confused, continually mangling the facts in his debate against challenger Walter Mondale. The result? Reagan won in a landslide.