It should come as no surprise that the impressions four local Democrats and Republicans took away from Wednesday and Thursday night’s 20-strong Democratic hopefuls presidential debate differed markedly.

Despite that, all said they got a chuckle out of attorney Andrew Yang’s promise to pay all Americans 18 and older $1,000 a month if elected.

“That was ridiculous,” Johnson County Democratic Party chairman Linda Brown said.

Former Johnson County Republican Party Chairman Henry Teich agreed.

“I’m not sure exactly how that would work or where the money would come from,” Teich said.

 Democratic divisions over race, age and ideology burst into public view in Thursday night’s debate, punctuated by a heated exchange between former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

It was one of several moments that left the 76-year-old Biden, who entered the night as his party’s early front-runner , on the defensive as he works to convince voters he’s still in touch with the modern Democratic Party and best-positioned to deny President Donald Trump a second term.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said to Biden before criticizing his record of working with Democratic segregationist senators on non-race issues as “hurtful.”

Biden called Harris’ criticism “a complete mischaracterization of my record.” 

Johnson County Precinct 6 Democratic Party Chairman Jim Garvin said Harris excelled as did South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont not so much, he said.

“Biden and Bernie are on the descending side of the mountain I think and probably need to do something else,” Garvin said. “Go away and enjoy their retirement years. Bernie didn’t say anything in particular last night but I thought Kamala took control and has good ideas. I loved her line about people not wanting to see a food fight but to be able to know how to put food on their tables.”

Teich agreed saying that Sanders lost ground while Harris gained it by staying on Biden like a “bulldog on a predator.”

“It’s way too early to tell who will get the nomination at this point,” Teich said. “But I think it was Biden’s to lose before Thursday night, and I think he’s losing it now.”

The night marked an abrupt turning point in a Democratic primary in which candidates have largely tiptoed around each other, focusing instead on their shared desire to beat Trump. With millions of Americans peeking inside the Democrats’ unruly 2020 season for the first time, the showdown revealed deep rifts eight months before primary voting begins.

The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least. Those are Biden, Sanders ,  Buttigieg , and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.

There are so many candidates lining up to take on Trump that they do not all fit on one debate stage — or even two. Twenty Democrats debated on national television this week in two waves of 10, while a handful more were left out altogether.

Trump, who was attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan, still found time to weigh in on the debate and jab his rivals, claiming it didn’t go well for Biden or Sanders.

The level of diversity on display on the debate stage was unprecedented for a major political party in the United States. The field features six women, two African Americans, one Asian American and two men under 40, one of them gay.

Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage and showed she could land a forceful attack on rivals.

Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president. Yet in the early days of the campaign, two white septuagenarians are leading the polls: Biden and Sanders.

“I kind of do wish the old white men would go away,” joked Garvin’s wife, Elaine Garvin.

Cleburne Republican Jami Shelton walked away unimpressed both nights.

“As a lifelong conservative I don’t like any of the current Democratic candidates,” Shelton said. “I don’t like a lot of the Republicans for that matter. But, being that they’re aligned more toward the conservative viewpoints, that’s where I lean. The problem with the Democrats is they’ve moved so far left that they’re socialists. America wasn’t founded on socialism but on free-market capitalism where anyone can be what they want if they work hard.”

Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders and Biden and has framed his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party.

He displayed a fluency on a range of policy issues and hit hard on efforts by Republican Trump to stifle the flow of illegal immigration at the Mexican border.

“For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say it is OK 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,” that party “has lost all claim to ever use religious language,” he said.

Their first round of debates is finished, but the real struggle is just beginning for most of the candidates.

“Harris stood out,” Brown said. “Otherwise I was frustrated and didn’t learn much about the others because they kept interrupting each other. They need to be on better behavior than that, and talk less about Trump and more about what they hope to do.”

All will work aggressively to leverage their debate performance and the related media attention to their advantage in the coming days. There is a real sense of urgency for more than a dozen who fear they may not reach donor and polling thresholds to qualify for later debates.

Should they fail to qualify, and many will fail, this week’s debates may have marked the high point for their personal presidential ambitions.

But whether that translates to unseating Trump next year remains to be seen.

“Whoever gets the nomination I assume will have a good chance against Trump,” Brown said. “Trump’s so erratic. If he gets re-elected we’re in big trouble.”

Garvin said he’s not so sure.

“Even as old as Biden is he may have the best chance of anyone to beat Trump,” Garvin said. “He knows how to connect with the working people. Harris can probably stand against Trump too though. Buttigieg too maybe, but he’s probably too young.

“But we need Trump out and to get stability back. Hell last time we elected this poor [expletive deleted] who’s the most morally corrupt president we’ve ever seen. Surely we’ve learned something but we may just be stupid enough to elect him again. We’ll see. Politics is fascinating in America today sir.”

Teich said Democrats should prepare for four more Trump years.

“I don’t think any candidate the Democrats have right now is a threat to Trump,” Teich said. “If the economy stays strong, and the economy’s hot right now, I don’t see he has a problem. Of course, things can change from now to next year, but I think he’s safe.”

Shelton agreed.

“I think Sanders and Warren will continue to get passion from their base,” Shelton said. “But a lot of that is going to be bluster that won’t necessarily translate into votes. I don’t see that they or any other candidates beat President Trump next year. I think they’re all just pandering to the base and so far out of step on abortion and other issues to how average Americans feel.”


Information in this 

report came from the 

Associated Press.

React to this story: