Fi­nal de­bate of year for 2020 Dems

Big­gest con­cern for vot­ers: Who can beat Trump in Novem­ber?

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Kath­leen Ron­ayne and Michael R. Blood The Washington Post con­trib­uted.

LOS AN­GE­LES — A win­nowed field of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­tenders takes the de­bate stage Thurs­day for a sixth and fi­nal time in 2019, as can­di­dates seek to con­vince vot­ers that they are the party’s best hope to deny Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump a sec­ond term next year.

The tele­vised con­test ahead of Christ­mas will bring seven ri­vals to heav­ily Demo­cratic Cal­i­for­nia, the big­gest prize in the pri­mary season and home to 1-in-8 Amer­i­cans. And, com­ing a day af­ter a di­vided U.S. House voted on im­peach­ment, the de­bate will un­der­score the para­mount con­cern for Demo­cratic vot­ers: Who can beat Trump in Novem­ber?

With vot­ers dis­tracted by the hol­i­days and the im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings in Washington, the de­bate in Los An­ge­les could turn out to be the least watched so far. View­er­ship has de­clined in each round though five de­bates, and even cam­paigns have grum­bled that can­di­dates would rather be on the ground in early vot­ing states than again tak­ing the de­bate stage.

The lack of a clear fron­trun­ner re­flects the un­cer­tainty grip­ping many vot­ers. Would Trump be more vul­ner­a­ble to a chal­lenge from the party’s lib­eral wing or a can­di­date teth­ered to the cen­trist es­tab­lish­ment? Should the pick be a man or a woman, or a per­son of color? The Demo­cratic field is also marked by wide dif­fer­ences in age, ge­og­ra­phy and wealth, and the party re­mains di­vided over is­sues in­clud­ing health care and the in­flu­ence of big-dol­lar fundrais­ing.

There will be a no­table lack of diver­sity com­pared to ear­lier de­bates. For the first time this cy­cle, the de­bate won’t fea­ture a black or Latino can­di­date.

The race in Cal­i­for­nia has largely mir­rored na­tional trends, with former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders and Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren clus­tered at the top of the field, fol­lowed by South Bend, In­di­ana, Mayor Pete But­tigieg, Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, busi­ness­man An­drew Yang and bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist Tom Steyer.

Con­spic­u­ously miss­ing from the lineup at Loy­ola Mary­mount Univer­sity on Thurs­day will be former New York City Mayor

Michael Bloomberg, a bil­lion­aire who is un­able to qual­ify for the con­tests be­cause he is not ac­cept­ing cam­paign do­na­tions.

But even if he’s not on stage, Bloomberg has been felt in the state: He’s run­ning a deluge of TV ad­ver­tis­ing in Cal­i­for­nia to in­tro­duce him­self to vot­ers who prob­a­bly know lit­tle, if any­thing, about him.

Bloomberg’s late en­try into the con­test last month high­lighted the over­rid­ing is­sue, electabil­ity, a sign of the un­ease within the Demo­cratic Party about its crop of can­di­dates and whether any is strong enough to un­seat an in­cum­bent pres­i­dent. The even­tual nom­i­nee will be tasked with splic­ing to­gether the party’s dis­parate fac­tions — a job Hil­lary Clin­ton strug­gled with af­ter de­feat­ing San­ders in a long and bit­ter pri­mary fight in 2016.

Bi­den ad­viser Sy­mone San­ders said she ex­pects another ro­bust ex­change on health care.

“This is an is­sue that is not go­ing away and for good rea­son, be­cause it is an is­sue that in 2018 Democrats ran on and won,” she said.

Jess O’Con­nell with But­tigieg’s cam­paign said the can­di­date will “be fully pre­pared to have an open and hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about where there are con­trast be­tween us and the other can­di­dates. This is a re­ally im­por­tant time to start to do that. Vot­ers need time to un­der­stand the dis­tinc­tions be­tween these can­di­dates.”

The key is­sues: health care and higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The un­set­tled race has seen surges at var­i­ous points by Bi­den, War­ren, San­ders and But­tigieg, though it’s be­come de­fined by that clus­ter of shift­ing lead­ers, with oth­ers strug­gling for mo­men­tum.

Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, once seen as among the top tier of can­di­dates, shelved her cam­paign this month, cit­ing a lack of money. And War­ren has be­come more ag­gres­sive, es­pe­cially to­ward But­tigieg, as she tries to re­cover from shift­ing ex­pla­na­tions of how she’d pay for “Medi­care for All” with­out rais­ing taxes.

In a re­play of 2016, the shift­ing race for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion has show­cased the rift be­tween the party’s lib­eral wing, rep­re­sented in San­ders and War­ren, and can­di­dates parked in or near the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter, in­clud­ing Bi­den, But­tigieg and Bloomberg.

The mod­er­ate side of this di­vide within the party wants the na­tion’s bil­lion­aires to pay a slightly higher tax rate on their in­come. Through an un­prece­dented wealth tax, the lib­eral side would tar­get the stock hold­ings, real es­tate and other prop­erty of the na­tion’s bil­lion­aires to raise tril­lions of dol­lars of new rev­enue.

One side has vir­tu­ally no plans to have the gov­ern­ment take over pri­vate in­dus­try. The other has an ar­mada of pro­pos­als for fed­eral in­ter­ven­tions, span­ning from gov­ern­ment con­trol of Amer­i­can health in­sur­ance to pub­lic pro­duc­tion of pre­scrip­tion drugs to man­dat­ing worker con­trol over their com­pa­nies.

Still, there are signs that can­di­dates are un­der pres­sure to make ad­just­ments. Bi­den told CNBC ear­lier this month that he would sup­port a new fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion tax on Wall Street. His com­ments came one day af­ter his cam­paign re­leased tax pro­pos­als that re­jected the idea.

“If one side wins, it’s eco­nomic dis­rup­tion in ad­van­tage of the peo­ple, with the losers be­ing bil­lion­aires and de­fense con­trac­tors,” said Alex Law­son, pres­i­dent of So­cial Se­cu­rity Works, a lib­eral group. “And if the other side wins, it’s less clear, but it prob­a­bly looks ba­si­cally sim­i­lar to how it looks now — but with­out Trump.”

The last time a party faced such di­ver­gent paths may have been the 2016 GOP pri­mary, when most Repub­li­can can­di­dates pledged a con­ven­tional ap­proach to fis­cal con­ser­vatism — in­clud­ing en­ti­tle­ment cuts and free trade — while Trump promised to leave Medi­care and So­cial Se­cu­rity un­touched and crit­i­cized trade agree­ments.

SAUL LOEB/GETTY-AFP

The cam­paign has seen surges at var­i­ous points by Pete But­tigieg, from left, El­iz­a­beth War­ren, Joe Bi­den and Bernie San­ders.

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