UM expert: Detroit debates become key for Biden rebound

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, left, speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens.

Democratic presidential front runner Joe Biden will be looking to rebound during Detroit's late July debates after having a poor performance Thursday, a University of Michigan debate expert said.

Biden’s poor performance Thursday overshadowed the performance of other candidates and will likely have him reevaluating his debate strategy and preparation ahead of next month’s debates in Detroit, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.

"One performance certainly isn’t disqualifying, but I would imagine he’ll take a little bit of a hit in the polls and there will be a lot of importance placed on him delivering in a rebound performance in Detroit after a pretty disappointing night,” said Kall, who was in Miami for the event. 

On the flip side, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California had the best night of the bunch after going on the offense against Biden to question his opposition to busing in the 1970s and his work with segregationists in the Senate, he said.

The African-American senator will likely benefit in terms of polling, donations and greater interest in her campaign, Kall said. 

“There was a lot of risk in doing that but it worked for her. She got the better of the exchanges,” he said. 

A week ago, a dispute emerged after Biden recalled working in the 1970s during his early years as senator from Delaware with two segregationist senators.

Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, Biden said with a heavy Southern accent, “never called me boy, he always called me son.” Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, he added, was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys” but “at least there was some civility.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had called on Biden to apologize for the comments, which the former vice president rejected. 

Civil right icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, has defended Biden, saying he wasn't offended by Biden's advocacy of "civility."

Democratic presidential candidates, from left, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., gesture before the start.

“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis said, according to Bloomberg. “At the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan. People who opposed us, even people who beat us, arrested us and jailed us. We never gave up on our fellow human beings.”

At several points in the Miami debate, Biden could tell he was in a tough position, prematurely ending some of his answers when he had time remaining, Kall said. 

“That’s a dead giveaway. That meant he didn’t want to continue an exchange because you want to quit while you’re behind,” the UM debate expert added. 

“He seemed to realize he was in trouble — he misnumbered his points. There was an error about whether he was talking about 2020 or 2030 (for a "full electric future"), and a confusion between millions and billions. A lot of small things like that where there are obviously concerns going into the debate about age and whether he still has it in order to compete at this kind of level — especially in presidential debates against Trump.”  

The Detroit debates are scheduled for July 30-31 at the Fox Theatre. The debate moderators have not been announced.