Demo­cratic de­bate is a bat­tle for heads, not hearts

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - EJ Dionne E.J. Dionne is on Twit­ter: @ EJ­Dionne.

The dy­nam­ics of the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial race are about to change. Tues­day’s de­bate in Des Moines will be the grand open­ing of a new set of con­flicts and the launch of re­newed ef­forts by can­di­dates not named Joe Bi­den or Bernie San­ders to make 2020 some­thing other than a lightly re­mod­eled ver­sion of the 2016 pri­maries.

To say the con­test is un­set­tled is an un­der­state­ment. Among a se­ries of sur­veys re­leased since the first day of the year, the most re­veal­ing was CBS News’ poll in Iowa: It found former Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den, Sen. San­ders and former South Bend Mayor Pete But­tigieg all tied at 23%, trailed by Sens. El­iz­a­beth Warren, D-Mass., at 16% and Amy Klobuchar, DMinn., at 7%.

The poll showed just how torn Democrats are about the de­ci­sion they con­front. “The race is un­set­tled be­cause the vot­ers are un­set­tled,” said Ge­off Garin, a Demo­cratic poll­ster who is neu­tral in the con­test. “San­ders has a com­mit­ted base, but oth­er­wise, vot­ers are mak­ing in­tel­lec­tual and strate­gic choices rather than pas­sion­ate choices. As a re­sult, vot­ers can shift around.”

The sur­vey also un­der­scored how high the stakes of Tues­day’s en­counter are for Warren, Klobuchar and, to only a slightly lesser de­gree, But­tigieg, whose emer­gence is the truly fresh story out of 2019.

Polls show that But­tigieg, who turns 38 on Sun­day, is in a plau­si­ble po­si­tion to win both Iowa on Feb. 3 and New Hamp­shire eight days later, an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment for a two-term mayor of a small Mid­west­ern city. But the un­like­li­ness of his suc­cess means he needs vic­tory in at least one of these states and strong show­ings in both to move for­ward.

This will con­tinue to make him a tar­get of both Warren and Klobuchar, but he must also pre­vent hem­or­rhag­ing some of his votes to fel­low mod­er­ate Bi­den. This could lead to a spir­ited gen­er­a­tional con­flict be­tween the youngest and sec­ond-old­est can­di­dates on­stage.

Warren, de­pend­ing on your point of view, is ei­ther stuck be­tween the more mod­er­ate can­di­dates and San­ders (and has lost sup­port to both sides) or, as she hopes, now rep­re­sents her party’s cen­ter of grav­ity and has the best chance to unify it.

Warren as uni­fier is a new theme, although she was ef­fec­tively play­ing that role this fall when she soared to the top of the field by pick­ing up sup­port across the party. This also serves as an an­swer to those who doubt she can de­feat Pres­i­dent Trump.

More than any­one, Klobuchar needs to up­end the dy­namic of the con­test. Her sur­vival as the fifth op­tion is not a triv­ial ac­com­plish­ment, given how many other can­di­dates have al­ready fallen by the way­side. But her can­di­dacy is un­likely to con­tinue past Iowa un­less she can cut deeply into But­tigieg’s and Bi­den’s vote shares. This gives her an in­ter­est in pro­vok­ing dra­matic mo­ments on Tues­day while hop­ing that her two im­me­di­ate ri­vals fal­ter.

San­ders, on the up­swing, will con­tinue to play his great­est hits for those who never tire of his tune. But the most dovish can­di­date on­stage will likely step up his crit­i­cisms of Bi­den’s for­eign pol­icy views, es­pe­cially his ini­tial sup­port for the Iraq War in 2002. The in­de­pen­dent from Ver­mont is an­tic­i­pat­ing what is now a strong pos­si­bil­ity: against Bi­den, he will be the out­sider pro­gres­sive against the in­sider fa­vorite, a reprise of his break­out role four years ago against Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Then there is Bi­den, so far the great sur­vivor. “The last year has re­ally not been that in­ter­est­ing,” said Anna Greenberg, a Demo­cratic poll­ster who worked for former Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign be­fore he dropped out to run in his state’s U.S. Se­nate race. “The first half was: who will pass lit­mus tests? The sec­ond half was: Bi­den, Bi­den, Bi­den, and Medi­care for All.”

Per­haps para­dox­i­cally, Greenberg said, the im­peach­ment in­quiry and Trump’s at­tacks on Bi­den and his son Hunter may have helped the former vice pres­i­dent by keep­ing him at the cen­ter of the con­ver­sa­tion and arous­ing sol­i­dar­ity with him among party loy­al­ists. And Bi­den’s own de­bate per­for­mances im­proved enough to re­as­sure Democrats who con­tinue to think he is the party’s best bet against an in­cum­bent they loathe.

Garin, the strate­gist, ar­gues that there are two kinds of Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers: Those look­ing for the strong­est pro­gres­sive to op­pose Trump, and those look­ing sim­ply for the strong­est Demo­crat to beat him. Last year started with the ac­cent on the first. As this year be­gins, the fo­cus — for now, to Bi­den’s ad­van­tage — has shifted to the sec­ond.

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