One month after a wobbly debate performance that reinforced the perceived weaknesses of the ostensible front-runner — Is he too old? Too nostalgically moderate? Too politically brittle to defend himself when challenged? — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. settled behind his center-stage lectern on Wednesday night and supplied some answers: He is still old. He is still nostalgic. And he is still the front-runner, until someone can prove otherwise.
Far from perfect, and rarely exactly steady, Mr. Biden nonetheless achieved at least some of the goals that seemed to elude him last time.
He had promised before the debate that this time he would not be so “polite.” About 30 minutes in, after listening to liberal rivals lash his health care vision as insufficiently ambitious and dismiss concerns about cost as a Republican talking point, Mr. Biden widened his eyes a bit. He waved a hand, slicing the air. He had just the word.
“This idea is a bunch of malarkey,” he said of the criticisms, leaning on a trademark Bidenism. He accused his peers of underselling the trillions of dollars that a “Medicare for all”-style plan might cost, turning toward two more progressive rivals — Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York — to level the kind of zealous defense of center-leftism that has often escaped him in this campaign: “I don’t know what math you do in New York,” Mr. Biden said. “I don’t know what math you do in California. But I tell ya, that’s a lot of money.”
Throughout the evening, he plowed through a series of forceful defenses of his service alongside former President Barack Obama, frequently eager to wrap himself in Mr. Obama’s legacy on issues from health care to climate and never missing a chance to remind audiences of his association with sunnier Democratic times.
Certainly, he did acknowledge some differences: He said he would renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade agreement for which he advocated as vice president.
Even while his record was under attack, Mr. Biden, 76, played the happy statesman, or tried to, occasionally slipping as he addressed far younger contenders. “Go easy on me, kid,” Mr. Biden said to Ms. Harris, a United States senator and former attorney general of California who is 54 years old, as they took the stage.
In an exchange with Julián Castro, the former federal housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, Mr. Biden referred to him as “Julián” and then thought better of it — “excuse me, the secretary.”
Discussing criminal justice reform with Senator Cory Booker, who has been sharply critical of Mr. Biden’s record on that matter, he jokingly skipped ahead, calling him the president and stopping himself as he lightheartedly grabbed Mr. Booker’s arm — “excuse me, the future president.”
And in an opening statement that seemed to reinforce the introductory theme of his campaign — taking relentless aim at President Trump — Mr. Biden nodded to the diversity of fellow Democrats onstage, appearing sensitive to the balance of running against them as a white male septuagenarian.
“We are strong and great because of this diversity, Mr. President, not in spite of it,” he said, pushing back against Mr. Trump’s latest grievance-powered rhetoric. “So Mr. President, let’s get something straight. We love it. We are not leaving it. We are here to stay, and we’re certainly not going to leave it to you.”
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Mr. Biden’s standing atop the field is far from assured, and some rival campaigns still consider him a paper-tiger favorite, doomed to crumble eventually under the weight of his lengthy record and indiscipline on the stump.
He has still struggled to communicate a detailed affirmative blueprint of what his presidency might look like and has yet to face Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has fashioned herself as the candidate with a policy plan for every occasion, on a debate stage.
And his first debate performance was so rocky, and so alarmed even close allies and advisers, that he did not have a high bar to clear Wednesday night.
But the forum provided a chance to articulate, at least in broad strokes, a compelling argument for the kind of deliberately paced change he is espousing, one night after Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders outlined their shared promise of far more extensive social and economic upheaval. It was also an opportunity to move beyond his disquieting showing five weeks ago, when an evening of wandering and defensive answers seemed to threaten a bedrock claim of Mr. Biden’s candidacy: that no other Democrat has the presence and moxie to stare down Mr. Trump.
That night in Miami, it was Ms. Harris who initiated the conflict, drawing on her personal experience with busing as a young black girl in California to castigate the former vice president for his warm remembrances of working with segregationist senators. Mr. Biden appeared flat-footed, defiant but sputtering, at one point stopping himself abruptly with an unfortunate phrase: “Anyway, my time is up.”
Entering Wednesday, Mr. Biden seemed determined to abandon such deference. As even admirers acknowledge that he can no longer float above the fray — with the fray savaging his long and often less-than-liberal record at every opportunity — Mr. Biden has in recent weeks demonstrated an increased willingness to engage, responding in kind to Ms. Harris and Senator Cory Booker, who has called Mr. Biden “an architect of mass incarceration.”
[Read our full recap of Night 2 of the Democratic debates.]
Some of Mr. Biden’s allies had described the first debate as a wake-up call for him — a reminder that, regardless of his previous relationships with these Democratic candidates, he could no longer expect the decorous treatment he enjoyed as vice president. His supporters urged him to focus on the future rather than rehashing the more controversial elements of his past.
“To the extent he spends his time getting wrapped up in relitigating statements or comments or votes from 30 or 40 years ago, I think we lose, all of us, collectively,” said Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and close ally of Mr. Biden’s. “What is constructive is when our candidates put their best foot forward on the debate stage, and show how they would be the best answer to the question that Middle America is asking: If we give you back the keys, Democrats, where will you take us?”
At times on Wednesday, Mr. Biden appeared particularly keen to embrace the “middle” part. He made clear that he was familiar with his opponents’ records on sensitive matters like criminal justice and policing, issuing criticisms of those records that could have come from another candidate further to the left. But on immigration, Mr. Biden proudly adopted a more centrist mantle, at a time when many Democratic strategists fear some in the presidential field are veering too far with calls to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings. “The fact of the matter is, you should be able to, if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s a crime.”
When pressed on the number of deportations that took place while Mr. Obama was in the White House — amid the shouts of some protesters — Mr. Biden staunchly defended the administration’s broader approach. But as Mr. de Blasio needled Mr. Biden over whether he had personally spoken up, Mr. Biden showed a flash of exasperation.
“I was vice president,” he said. “I am not the president. I keep my recommendation in private. Unlike you, I expect you would go ahead and say whatever was said privately with him. That is not what I do. What I do say to you is, he moved to fundamentally change the system.”
While Mr. Biden was crisper and more energetic on Wednesday than he was in the first debate, his verbal tics and signature self-interruptions were hardly eradicated. He still cut himself off, at times with a well-worn trail-off: “Anyway …”
Mr. Biden’s advisers said ahead of the debate that they anticipated that he would be the main target of the other candidates onstage, and candidates from Mr. de Blasio to Ms. Harris to Mr. Booker aimed to deliver. But throughout the debate, Ms. Harris was also the subject of repeated criticism across the stage, from Senator Michael Bennet on health care to Representative Tulsi Gabbard on criminal justice.
In one early exchange on health care, Mr. Biden signaled quickly that he would gladly join the effort. “You can’t beat President Trump with double-talk,” he said, accusing Ms. Harris of vacillating and equivocating in her health care plans. Ms. Harris landed some of her own zingers — “They’re probably confused because they’ve not read it,” she said of the Biden campaign’s critique of her proposal — but often found herself on the defensive, occasionally demoting the former vice president to “Senator Biden” as she collected herself for a response.
Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker are particularly eager to chip away at Mr. Biden’s expansive backing among black voters, who still recall him fondly from his eight years as Mr. Obama’s sidekick.
Yet one lesson of Mr. Biden’s first debate is how durable much of his support seems to be so far. While Mr. Biden initially saw his standing fall a bit in polls, with Ms. Harris especially rising, he appears to have reestablished a comfortable lead in recent surveys.
A Quinnipiac University national poll released Monday showed Mr. Biden well ahead of his competitors: He was the choice of 34 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning voters, the survey found, while Ms. Harris came in at 12 percent. Among black voters the numbers were starker: Mr. Biden had the support of 53 percent of black Democratic voters; Ms. Harris claimed only 7 percent.
Perhaps channeling some confidence from those poll numbers, Mr. Biden vigorously defended his own record throughout the debate, appearing more comfortable than he had in June.
Not every flourish worked. In his closing statement, Mr. Biden seemed to show his age a little while trying to promote a way to join his campaign. “Go to Joe 30330,” he said, apparently conflating a website with a text message destination. The result, instead, was malarkey.