Demo­cratic de­bate: Top 2020 hope­fuls fi­nally on same stage

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Bill Bar­row

HOUS­TON — De­spite the miles trav­eled, the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars raised and the cease­less churn of pol­icy pa­pers, the Demo­cratic pri­mary has been re­mark­ably static for months with Joe Bi­den lead­ing in polls, and El­iz­a­beth Warren and Bernie Sanders vy­ing to be the pro­gres­sive al­ter­na­tive. That sta­bil­ity is un­der threat on Thurs­day.

All of the top pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates will share a de­bate stage, a set­ting that could make it harder to avoid skir­mishes among the early front-run­ners. The other seven can­di­dates, mean­while, are un­der grow­ing pres­sure to prove they‘re still in the race to take on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump next Novem­ber.

The de­bate in Hous­ton comes at a piv­otal point as many vot­ers move past their sum­mer va­ca­tions and start to pay closer at­ten­tion to the cam­paign. With the au­di­ence get­ting big­ger, the ranks of can­di­dates shrink­ing and first votes ap­proach­ing in five months, the stakes are ris­ing.

“For a com­plete junkie or some­one in the business, you al­ready have an im­pres­sion of ev­ery­one,” said Howard Dean, who ran for pres­i­dent in 2004 and later chaired the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. “But now you are go­ing to see in­creas­ing scru­tiny with other peo­ple com­ing in to take a closer look.”

The de­bate will air on a broad­cast network with a postLa­bor Day uptick in in­ter­est in the race, al­most cer­tainly giv­ing the can­di­dates their largest sin­gle au­di­ence yet. It’s also the first de­bate of the 2020 cy­cle that’s con­fined to one night af­ter sev­eral can­di­dates dropped out and oth­ers failed to meet new qual­i­fi­ca­tion stan­dards.

View­ers will see the di­ver­sity of the mod­ern Demo­cratic Party. The de­bate, held on the cam­pus of his­tor­i­cally black Texas South­ern Univer­sity, fea­tures sev­eral women, peo­ple of color and a gay man, a strik­ing con­trast from the white and male Repub­li­can Party. It will un­fold in a rapidly chang­ing state that Democrats hope to even­tu­ally bring into their col­umn.

Per­haps the big­gest ques­tion is how di­rectly the can­di­dates will at­tack one an­other. Some fights that were pre­dicted in pre­vi­ous de­bates failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize with can­di­dates like Sanders and Warren in July join­ing forces to take on their ri­vals.

The White House hope­fuls and their cam­paigns are send­ing mixed mes­sages about how ea­ger they are to make frontal at­tacks on any­one other than Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. That could mean the first meet­ing between Warren, the ris­ing pro­gres­sive call­ing for “big, struc­tural change,” and Bi­den, the more cau­tious but still am­bi­tious es­tab­lish­men­tar­ian, doesn’t de­fine the night.

Or that Ka­mala Har­ris, the Cal­i­for­nia sen­a­tor, and Pete But­tigieg, the mayor of South Bend, In­di­ana, look to re­claim lost mo­men­tum not by punch­ing up­ward but by reem­pha­siz­ing their own vi­sions for Amer­ica.

Bi­den, who has led most na­tional and early state polls since he joined the field in April, is down­play­ing the prospects of a ti­tanic clash with Warren, de­spite their wellestab­lished pol­icy dif­fer­ences on health care, taxes and fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion.

“I’m just go­ing to be me, and she’ll be her, and let peo­ple make their judg­ments. I have great re­spect for her,” Bi­den said re­cently as he cam­paigned in South Carolina.

Warren says con­sis­tently that she has no in­ter­est in go­ing af­ter Demo­cratic op­po­nents.

Yet both cam­paigns are also clear that they don’t con­sider it a per­sonal at­tack to draw sharp pol­icy con­trasts.

A Washington Post-ABC poll this week found that among Democrats and Demo­crat­i­clean­ing vot­ers, Bi­den gar­nered 29% sup­port over­all. Mean­while, 45% thought he had the best chance to beat Trump, even though just 24% iden­ti­fied him as the “best pres­i­dent for the coun­try” among the pri­mary field.


A Washington Post-ABC poll said Joe Bi­den had 29% sup­port over­all among Demo­cratic-lean­ing vot­ers.

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