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Surprises of Debate Night #2: Biden's Better, But Booker Gets Breakout Moments

Joseph Biden did better in his second Democratic debate --- but so did some of his rivals.

That may be enough for Biden to temper some of the fears of his network of donors, as he came to the Detroit stage better prepared and energized.

He may even benefit from other candidates targeting him with opposition research, as there were moments in the debate when it seemed as if the main enemy for Democrats was not the Trump administration, but the policies of the Obama years. When Kirsten Gillibrand slammed Biden for an early 1980s op ed, when he opposed a child care tax credit, he countered by noting that she was praiseworthy of his Senate record in writing the Violence Against Women Act.

“I don’t know what happened, except you’re running for president," Biden shot back.

The infighting among Democratic contenders has raised fears that the party will carry its divisions all the way to the convention, with damaged nominee going up again Trump and a unified Republican party. Unlike Tuesday, the Wednesday candidates didn't seem to need as much coaxing from CNN's moderators to engage in the intra-party squabbles. The network's anchors didn't even need to interrupt the candidates as much for time. On this night, demonstrators in the audience were the ones who stopped the proceedings.

Here are the big surprises of the evening:

Obama is the target. For a bit, it seemed as if the candidates were running away from the Obama years, what with the criticisms of the administrations policies on deportations, healthcare and trade. Even Biden was forced to distance himself from the Trans Pacific Partnership, vowing to renegotiate with environmentalists and labor representatives on the team.

"Imagine sitting with @BarackObama and watching this," tweeted The New York Times' Glenn Thrush.

Eric Holder, attorney general during much of the Obama administration, wrote, "To my fellow Democrats. Be wary of attacking the Obama record. Build on it. Expand it. But there is little to be gained --- for you or the party --- by attacking a very successful and still popular Democratic president."

Biden is better, but not the best: With a strong opening statement and some attack lines of his own, the former vice president had a better night than the first outing. He looked and sounded more energized. He knew that he would be the focal point of this debate, and he told Harris at the outset, "Go easy on me, kid."

But other candidates, like Harris and Cory Booker, came prepared to counter Biden's attempts to counter attack. When Biden criticized Booker's record as mayor of Newark, Booker took the opportunity to chide Biden over his record on criminal justice.

"There's a saying in my community: You're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor," Booker said. He said that Biden was among the politicians who, in the mid-1990s, "used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.”

Booker's breakout moments: The New Jersey senator had the strongest moments, and not just because Biden referred to him once as "the future president." He gave a defense of Democratic calls for turning illegal immigration a civil, rather than criminal offense, and in his closing remarks gave an eloquent case for why the race really is about defeating Donald Trump. He also referenced Trump's use of the term, "shithole countries," and CNN didn't bleep it out.

Strangely enough, there was one moment in the debate when he called for Democrats to stop attacking each other and focus on Trump; then he got in a tiff with Biden.

Gabbard goes after Harris: Biden wasn't the only one targeted. Tulsi Gabbard slammed Harris for her record as California's attorney general and as a prosecutor.

"She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the court’s forced her to do so," Gabbard said, while also attacking Harris over harsh sentences and marijuana possession convictions.

Harris defended her record and said that she actually led the reform of the criminal justice system in California and that it became "a national model for the work that needs to be done.”

Gab bard needed to make a mark, as the rules for the third debate in September are likely to winnow the field considerably.

Kool-Aid's cool comeback: The brand quickly seized on Booker's call out, posting a tweet that read, "#Ahem @SenBooker OH YEAH #WeKnowTheFlavor #DemDebate."

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