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Upstart Eric Swalwell, 38, half of Joe Biden’s age, drew a collective gasp from the Democratic debate audience Thursday when he told the 76-year-old front-runner it is time to pass the torch.

“If we are going to solve climate chaos, pass the torch,” said Congressman Swalwell, a long-shot candidate. “If we want to end gun violence and solve student debt, pass the torch.”

Joe Biden fired back. "I'm holding onto that torch. I want to make it clear.”

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He didn’t make it clear. Instead – on this night at least – he had the torch ripped from his hand. Not by Mr. Swalwell but by Kamala Harris, the California Senator whose galvanizing performance drew wows from the pundits and star-is-born talk.

She has emerged as the winner of the Democratic debates held over two days and she could well separate herself from the large pack trailing Mr. Biden and Bernie Sanders. But being both black and a woman will not make it easy for her going forward as Democrats decide who can best take down Donald Trump.

On a debate stage, she clearly has the right stuff. There isn’t a candidate in memory with as powerful a set of vocal chords and as imposing a stage presence as Kamala Harris. Her voice has its own unique rhythm and sustained cadence. It is deep, prosecutorial, intimidating.

In these contests voice matters. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had some good moments such as in pointing out how the country’s moral fabric has been torn apart by Mr. Trump. But compared to Ms. Harris, her delivery was squeaky. Mayor Pete Buttigieg was calm and intelligent, but looked withdrawn by comparison.

Poor Mr. Biden got taken to the woodshed. When Ms. Harris trenchantly confronted him on civil rights, he tried to defend himself, only to look at the moderator after making some points and submissively say “My time is up.” Candidates routinely ignore time limits in these debates. Mr. Biden didn’t bother. There was cruel irony in his statement.

Ms. Harris struck hard when she told Mr. Biden it was “hurtful” to hear him talk recently about having worked so well with two segregationist senators. “And it was not only that,” she continued, “but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day.

And that little girl was me.”

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Mr. Biden, who did have some good moments, came across as sounding like he was in favour of states’ rights on racial issues, saying he had opposed busing by the Department of Education. On gun violence, he said at one point that the National Rifle Association was not the enemy. He was hit hard on Iraq by Mr. Sanders who said Mr. Biden had “ voted for that war, I [Mr. Sanders] helped lead the opposition to that war, which was a total disaster.”

Mr. Sanders also had some good moments, delivering the most hard-hitting wrap-up statement. He listed the country’s ills, including how three Americans own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the population. And “nothing will change,” he said, “unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, and the fossil fuel industry.”

There’s a lot of truth in that statement. Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders thinks he can still carry the torch and if he and Elizabeth Warren, very much on the same socialist-leaning page, combine forces they will be formidable.

Several more debates will give Mr. Biden a chance to recover, but they are likely to draw more emphasis to his being past his prime and to there being newer, fresher, more energetic forces in the wings.

Thurdsay’s debate outshone the one the night before which didn’t produce the drama or a clear winner. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard and Julian Castro were judged to have done well.

None of them did as well as Kamala Harris. She had been halting in her performance in the campaign to date. Overly cautious.

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While it was suspected that no one among the Democrats packs as hard a punch, she had yet to show it. On Thursday she did so. Her party needed a breakout star. For the moment at least, it has one.

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