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The Democrats' dilemma: evolution vs revolution

To the dismay of many Democrats, the real winners to come out of the two nights of presidential debates may have been President Trump and the Republicans.

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Mr Biden and Senator Kamala Harris at the debate in Detroit, Michigan. The majority of Democratic voters may want to see an evolutionary change, but not a political revolution.

FOR two nights last week, the US Democratic Party's presidential aspirants engaged in a heated debate during which they attacked each other and explained why their competitors should not be occupying the White House in 2021. They spent less time spelling out why they should defeat President Donald Trump next year and why the American voters should trust them to do a better job.

CNN was trying to build up the two nights - or six hours of the Democratic presidential debates - as the political events of the year, creating expectations among viewers that the candidates' performances could decide the winner in the race, and by extension who would be facing the Democrats' White House nemesis in the 2020 general election.

More specifically, in the aftermath of his somewhat phlegmatic performance in the first series of debates in Miami, Florida, in June, some politicos were whispering that the frontrunner in the Democratic race, the 76-year-old former vice- president Joe Biden, was showing his age, wondering whether he could get back his political mojo in the second round of debates in Detroit, Michigan.

With his impressive political experience and centrist policy positions, and his popularity among the kind of blue collar voters who supported candidate Trump in 2016, Mr Biden has been the favourite of the Democratic Party establishment who believe that he would lead them to victory next year. And, indeed, most opinion polls have indicated that the former vice-president was the Democratic candidate with the best chance of beating Mr Trump.

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But with a field of more than 20 Democratic candidates and with Mr Biden's support ranging between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of Democratic primary voters, the veteran politician who represented the state of Delaware in Congress for several terms needed not only to capture the political momentum he may have lost, but also to widen his lead over his main rivals as more candidates start withdrawing from the race.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that the final political battle of the Democrats would be between Mr Biden - representative of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party - and between one of the two candidates promoting the left-leaning agenda embraced by the progressives in the party: either Vermont Senator and the self-proclaimed socialist democrat Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth ("I have a plan for this") Warren. The two have been advancing several ambitious social economic programmes, including a plan for a government-guided healthcare system and have called for imposing punitive tax rates on the wealthy and big corporations.

In many ways, the clash between the moderates and the progressives reflected a generational split between veteran politicians like Mr Biden; Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado; the former Governor of that state, John Hickenlooper; and Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who basically want to restore the political status-quo in Washington that existed before the election of Mr Trump and between younger Democratic activists who seek major structural economic and political changes, a revolution of sorts, that would reflect the party's progressive strands.

If Mr Trump succeeded in transforming the Republican Party into a populist nationalist political movement, Senators Sanders and Warren insist that the time has come to move the Democrats in a socialist direction. They are going to be the Democratic disrupters.

Joining those two senators on the progressive train - but while marketing themselves as more pragmatic versions - have been several of the other Democratic candidates, led by Senators Kamala Harris (California), Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) and the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.They all share a common interest in cutting Mr Biden down to size as they portray him as a long-time Washington insider and a relic of the past.

So it was not surprising that on the first night of the debate moderate candidates like Mr Hickenlooper and Representative Delaney targeted Senators Sanders and Warren for attacks, warning that adopting their left-leaning ideas (in particular, their plan to create a costly national healthcare system) would, they charged, alienate middle-of-the-road and independent voters. The progressives responded by insisting that the Democrats would win only with a clear message of a radical change.

The direction of the debate changed on the second night with Senators Harris, Booker and Gillibrand questioning Mr Biden's honesty and character. But in the process they became targets of criticism by Mr Biden and other candidates who blasted Senator Harris' record as a prosecutor in California and and Senator Booker as Mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

To the dismay of many Democrats, the real winners to come out of the two nights of debates may have been Mr Trump and the Republicans, who were probably happy to see the Democrats attacking each other and doing their best to derail the nomination of Mr Biden who remains the main threat to the president's quest for re-election.

The good news for former vice-president Biden was that he sounded a bit more energetic last week in Detroit than he did in Miami in June, although he repeatedly stumbled over numbers and phrases. But it is doubtful that his performance and his message of pledging to lead the country, on the basis of the legacy of the Obama administration, succeeded in creating excitement among those who were watching the debate on Wednesday. Bottom line: He remained politically alive post-debate - but not much more than that.

If anything, it is more likely that as a representative of the political status-quo, Mr Biden will face growing personal and political challenges from the candidates calling for change who may have captured the political momentum in their party, especially when it comes to the younger activists. As for Senators Sanders and Warren, the other two leading contenders, their main obstacle is that the majority of Democratic voters regard themselves as politically moderate and are not keen on nominating a Democratic version of Mr Trump.

From that perspective, the more pragmatic progressive candidates - like Senators Harris and Booker and Mayor Buttigieg - may have a certain advantage over the more radical progressive candidates like Mr Sanders and Ms Warren and could emerge as an alternative to Mr Biden as they try to win the support of the majority of Democratic voters - those who want to see an evolutionary change, but not a political revolution.