Tonight could clear a path to the fin­ish

Bi­den, War­ren, San­ders tan­gle in nar­rowed field

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WASH­ING­TON – Ten can­di­dates. One night. And five questions that the Democratic de­bate Thurs­day may help an­swer about a pres­i­den­tial race that is steadily ac­cel­er­at­ing.

For the first time, the field’s con­sis­tent leader, Joe Bi­den, will face off on stage with his fastest-ris­ing ri­val, El­iz­a­beth War­ren. Stand­ing on Bi­den’s other side will be Bernie San­ders, the fi­nal can­di­date in the trio that make up the top tier. Seven other con­tenders scoring in sin­gle dig­its in na­tional and statewide polls will be on stage as well, vy­ing to com­mand the elo­quence or de­ploy the fisticuffs that could get them at­ten­tion and, they hope, trac­tion.

The field is win­now­ing – cut in half from the 20 can­di­dates who qual­i­fied for the first two rounds of de­bates, which means the de­bate can be held on one night in­stead of two – and the clock is tick­ing. In five months, the Iowa cau­cuses will open a sprint for the nomination to chal­lenge Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s bid for a sec­ond term.

Here's what we could learn from the Hous­ton de­bate.

1. Is Bi­den a frag­ile front-run­ner?

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den has dis­played some of the same qual­i­ties he did in his pre­vi­ous two pres­i­den­tial bids, in 1988 and 2008, in­clud­ing a lo­qua­cious na­ture and a ten­dency for gaffes. Unlike those cam­paigns, that hasn’t un­der­mined his sup­port. Bol­stered by the ar­gu­ment that he is the con­tender best

able to de­feat Trump, Bi­den re­mains at the top of the Democratic field.

So far.

Even some of Bi­den's back­ers, in­clud­ing a top New Hamp­shire sup­porter, worry that he is a frag­ile front-run­ner, that he needs to make his ap­pear­ances more en­er­getic and his an­swers less long-winded. In a phone call with re­porters last week, se­nior Bi­den cam­paign aides ar­gued that the Iowa cau­cuses weren't a "mustwin" for him – which was not ex­actly an ex­pres­sion of con­fi­dence. Mas­sachusetts Sen. War­ren has drawn bigger and more en­thu­si­as­tic crowds on the cam­paign trail.

For Bi­den, more than any other can­di­date, the de­bate will be a test: of his abil­ity to give crisp an­swers, to re­spond to likely at­tacks and to demon­strate en­ergy through the du­ra­tion of a fo­rum that is sched­uled to last three hours.

2. How will mass shoot­ings shape the de­bate?

Since the Democratic de­bate six weeks ago, nine peo­ple in an en­ter­tain­ment district were killed in a mass shoot­ing in Day­ton, Ohio; 22 peo­ple shop­ping at a Wal­mart were killed in a mass shoot­ing in El Paso, Texas; seven passersby were killed in a mass shoot­ing near Odessa, Texas.

That spate of vi­o­lence cat­alyzed the de­bate over pro­pos­als widely sup­ported by Amer­i­cans to ex­pand background checks on gun buy­ers and to en­act so-called red-flag laws, bol­ster­ing the abil­ity of law en­force­ment to take steps against those sus­pected of con­tem­plat­ing vi­o­lence. It has also fu­eled a more di­vi­sive dis­cus­sion over manda­tory “buy­backs” of as­sault-style weapons, a pro­posal op­po­nents crit­i­cize as gun con­fis­ca­tion in vi­o­la­tion of rights es­tab­lished in the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

For­mer Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, has made gun vi­o­lence his new sig­na­ture is­sue, call­ing for a manda­tory buy­backs pro­gram and li­cens­ing for all firearms. But Bi­den, San­ders and War­ren have en­dorsed only a vol­un­tary buy­back pro­gram.

“We’ve got a big enough lift here,” said Pete But­tigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.

3. How long can War­ren and San­ders be friends?

Ver­mont Sen. San­ders and War­ren are more than New Eng­land neigh­bors. They are also the two most out­spo­ken lib­er­als in the Democratic field. Their embrace of far-reach­ing pro­pos­als such as Medi­care for All and the Green New Deal stand in con­trast to Bi­den’s more cen­trist ap­proach. Each wants to be the al­ter­na­tive to the left of the for­mer vice pres­i­dent.

Even so, San­ders and War­ren de­clined the opportunit­y to crit­i­cize each other when they were side-by-side on stage at the de­bate in July, and they haven’t taken pot­shots on the stump. That nonag­gres­sion pact pre­sum­ably will be strained by the need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from one an­other.

At the mo­ment, they seem more likely to take on Bi­den. War­ren crit­i­cized po­si­tions taken by Bi­den as too cozy with big busi­ness at the ex­pense of con­sumers, in­clud­ing a bank­ruptcy bill he backed in 2005.

This de­bate will be her first opportunit­y to take that bat­tle to him face-to-face dur­ing this cam­paign.

4. Does light­ning strike?

In the first de­bate, in June, Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris scored the evening’s vi­ral mo­ment in an emo­tional ex­change with Bi­den over his po­lit­i­cal record – and her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences – with school bus­ing. That fu­eled in­ter­est in her cam­paign un­til she failed to be as sure­footed in the sec­ond de­bate, when her own record as a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral was un­der at­tack.

In a pre­view of her de­bate strat­egy this time, spokesman Ian Sams said, “Ka­mala will take on Don­ald Trump di­rectly” – not re­ally the sort of sur­prise stance that could grab head­lines in a Democratic de­bate, where the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent isn’t likely to have de­fend­ers.

She’ll have com­pe­ti­tion for the spot­light. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for­mer Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Ju­lian Cas­tro, Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, But­tigieg and O’Rourke also hope for a break­through mo­ment that helps pro­pel them from the sec­ond tier to the first.

5. Who is An­drew Yang?

The Democratic field is still big, but it’s smaller than it was. Since the last de­bate, New York Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand, Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee and for­mer Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper have dropped out. Prom­i­nent Democrats who are still run­ning – among them Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard, Mon­tana Gov. Steve Bullock, Colorado Sen. Michael Ben­net, New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan – didn’t meet the polling and fund­ing thresh­old to qual­ify for this de­bate.

Bil­lion­aire ac­tivist Tom Steyer didn’t make this de­bate but has met the con­di­tions for the next one, in Oc­to­ber.

An­drew Yang will be on stage Thurs­day. An­drew Yang?

He has never been elected to of­fice; in­deed, he has never run for of­fice. But the 44year-old en­tre­pre­neur, who founded the non­profit Ven­ture for Amer­ica, has struck a chord with a fer­vent band of sup­port­ers with his pro­pos­als to pro­vide a “universal ba­sic in­come” of $1,000 a month to ev­ery Amer­i­can and to ad­dress the au­to­ma­tion of jobs.

He seems to be the can­di­date hav­ing the most fun. Wit­ness the video of him at an Asian Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal fo­rum in Costa Mesa, Cal­i­for­nia, on Sun­day – crowd surf­ing.

Wash­ing­ton Bureau Chief USA TO­DAY

Bi­den

San­ders

Yang

War­ren

Cas­tro

Klobuchar

Booker

O’Rourke

Har­ris

But­tigieg

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