Final debate of year for 2020 Dems
Biggest concern for voters: Who can beat Trump in November?
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.
The campaign has seen surges at various points by Pete Buttigieg, from left, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.