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For four hours of televised debates over two summer evenings – a test of viewer perseverance as much as an exercise in voter enlightenment – 20 U.S. presidential candidates this week delivered a vivid portrait of the new Democratic Party and a vivid contrast to the man they hope to defeat 16 months from now.

Their differences were more of nuance than philosophy. Together they revile Donald Trump. They are preoccupied with the wealth gap. They want to fight climate change. They are determined to make dramatic changes to the U.S. health-care system. They are committed to gun control. To equal pay for women, preserving abortion rights, cutting drug prices and ending the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border.

But after 240 minutes of conversation and contention – exactly the length of play of the first five games of the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship series – three vital questions lingered:

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  • Was Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey correct when he asserted that ‘’most of America agrees with the policy views of our party’’?
  • Was Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York right when he said the party would flourish only if the Democrats stop acting as ‘’the party of elites,’’ a notion reinforced by Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who argued that ‘’we’ve lost all connection’’ with traditional Democratic constituencies?
  • Was Senator Kamala Harris of California right when she suggested that the bickering, sniping, manoeuvring and pandering of a cast of 25 presidential candidates constituted such a spectacle that American voters will turn away in disgust? ”Americans don’t want to witness a food fight,’’ she said. ‘’They want to know how to put food on the table.’’

Each of the candidates came to the Miami stage with the challenge of making a strong first impression to a nationwide television audience. But the effect of those efforts – often scripted, polished lines – was to show a party struggling to define itself in the Trump era.

Moreover, the two evenings also underlined the difficulty of selecting a nominee who can defeat the President from a cast of candidates fully three times larger than the field that sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, customarily regarded as the richest cast in modern times.

At the same time, the thrusts and parries of the debate showed just how much American politics has changed since that contest a quarter-century ago.

The most significant confrontation of the two evenings came when Ms. Harris, a black woman who attended school under a busing program to promote racial integration, questioned the commitment to civil rights of former vice-president Joseph R. Biden Jr., an unsuccessful 1988 Democratic presidential candidate who last week spoke of working with segregationist lawmakers and who once opposed busing in his home state of Delaware. Ms. Harris, who later attended high school in Westmount, Que., won an important breakout moment. Mr. Biden, though somewhat rusty, nonetheless consolidated his position as a lifetime civil-rights advocate.

Four of the candidates over the two nights spoke in Spanish – ‘’We’ll say ‘adios’ to Donald Trump,’’ said former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro – a sign of the importance of minority voters in the Democratic calculus for 2020.

All the candidates emphasized the dominant role the rich play in the economy and culture of the U.S., with special animus for Wall Street. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont combined that with the student debt crisis, saying he would eliminate that burden ‘’by putting a tax on Wall Street.’’ Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who pilloried the pharmaceutical industry and even the private-sector prison industry, portrayed the life of middle-class Americans as remorseless struggle, vowing, ‘’I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own family.’’

Never before have so many women appeared in presidential debates, and when Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State said he was "the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health," Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota responded icily, ‘’There's three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose."

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And never before in a presidential debate has a lesser-known candidate, or even a prominent one, employed colourful language such as ‘’pissed off,’’ a phrase Mr. Castro used Wednesday night and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., repeated Thursday. That night, entrepreneur Andrew Yang said the Russians were ‘’laughing their ass off’’ for interfering in U.S. domestic affairs.

The principal targets over the two nights were Mr. Trump (‘’a phoney, a pathological liar and a racist,’’ in the characterization of Mr. Sanders) and Mr. Biden (also scorched by Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who confronted him on his age, noting the youthful Mr. Biden spoke of ‘’passing the torch’’ to a new generation. A moderator interjected: ‘’Vice-President, would you like to sing a torch song?’’).

Did all these ripostes change the trajectory of the campaign?

Generally, the top-ranked contenders – Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren – did not stumble. Mr. Booker, Mr. Buttigieg, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Ms. Klobuchar showed mastery, while Ms. Harris showed fiery passion. Former representative John Delaney of Maryland, a relative unknown despite already having campaigned in all 99 counties of Iowa, won applause for speaking of moderation and compromise.

That profile set him apart from his rivals but also provided the entire cast of candidates with the strategy the Democrats are seeking: a major departure from Mr. Trump’s policies and postures, imprecations and insults.

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