In between taking shots at one another, Democrats running for president took pointed, deserved shots at the president during the third Democratic debate Thursday night in Houston. But when the topic of Donald Trump‘s foreign trade policy, Kamala Harris had some time on her hands.
While other candidates on the stage at the historically Black college Texas Southern University blasted Trump’s treatment of foreign allies, Harris took things one step farther with a simile that instantly had people buzzing on social media about a perfectly timed quip.
Citing what she said was Trump’s “fragile ego,” Harris likened him to the eponymous character in the classic piece of literature, “The Wizard of Oz.” Saying that he talks a big game without actually backing any of it up, Harris said Trump was like the big disappointment when readers and viewers finally meet the actual wizard.
“When you pull back the curtain it’s a really small dude,” Harris said with a straight face while the audience applauded.
Harris’ “Wizard of Oz” analogy came after she, herself, appeared to be deflecting the persistent line of questioning about her record as a prosecutor that has dogged her campaign. ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis, a Black woman, asked the California senator why she appeared to now be backing away from her previous hardline legal stances that criminalized many people for nonviolent crimes.
That moment came before the candidates kept bandying Barack Obama‘s name about during the first hour of the debate. The 44th president seemed to be omnipresent without actually being present at all. That was because former Vice President Joe Biden, who served loyally under Obama for both terms, has been eager to tout that relationship while riding the wave of supporters all the way to the top of the polls.
But that’s not something Biden’s rival candidates — and at least one debate moderator — were trying to hear Thursday night.
Univision’s Jorge Ramos, one of three moderators, seemed to set off the chain of events when he accused Biden of ducking questions about Obama’s immigration policies. So, Ramos said, this was yet another chance for Biden to answer for the millions of deportations that happened on Obama’s watch. “Why should Latinos trust you?” Ramos asked Biden.
Biden’s answer — which Ramos said was not actually an answer at all, again — was not met warmly.
The 10 Democrats – former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang — met more than a month after the second round of Democratic debates took place on two separate stages to accommodate the more than 20 candidates in late July.
The debate Thursday was historic for a number of reasons. One of them was because of its location: on the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically Black college in Houston where 23 percent of the population is Black. Many pundits said this was the perfect opportunity for candidates to make further appeals to Black voters, who have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Biden was leading every single Democratic poll entering Thursday night’s debate, but all of the top five polling Democrats running for president were each favored to beat Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup if the election was to take place now. That meant that the former vice president would be the likely target of his opponents who were all looking for ways to chip away at Biden’s formidable lead that he’s held since he declared his candidacy.
But with a new poll showing that 15 percent of Black male voters were happy with Trump’s job performance (compared to just 3 percent of Black women), nothing was certain, ramping up the urgency for candidates to take advantage of this chance to speak to Black voters directly.
One of the ways Biden has managed to distance himself from the other candidates was to consistently offer Barack Obama references, something that analysist have said help endear him to the Democratic base that the 44th president was so popular with during both of his presidential terms. That was true this week after Biden released his latest campaign ad that lauded Obama.
“We should step back and say something we don’t often say enough as a party or as a nation: Barack Obama is an extraordinary man,” Biden said in the ad released Thursday, just hours before the debate was set to take place. “I watched up close. He has character, courage, and vision. He was a president our children could and did look up to. He was a great president.”
Biden’s association with Obama could be the game-changer he needs to finally be nominated to run for president. However, Booker said Biden was guilty by that same association during the last debate when the former vice president tried to distance himself from Obama’s immigration policies.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker told Biden during the debate in Detroit. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not. And the second thing that this really irks me because I heard the vice president say that if you got a PhD., you can come right into this country. Well, that’s playing into what the Republicans want, to pit some immigrants against other immigrants.”
It was unclear whether attacking Biden or focusing on Trump would be the prevailing theme of the third Democratic debate, which could be some of the lower-polling candidates’ final chance to make their cases to the American people on the debate stage.