There are now less than five months to go before the first votes are cast in the Democratic presidential nominating contest. So the spotlight is going to be even hotter on the 10 candidates who made the cut for Thursday’s debate in Houston.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is ascendant with more Democrats saying they like her than any other candidate, but former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead in the polls. So what might set them apart, what could be the flashpoints Thursday night, and can any of the other candidates break through?
Here are some key logistical questions, followed by political ones:
When is the debate? Thursday from 8-11 p.m. ET
What channel is it on? ABC and Univision (with Spanish translation)
Who are the moderators? ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Linsey Davis and Univision’s Jorge Ramos
Who’s on the stage? Biden, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Warren, as well as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and tech investor Andrew Yang.
What were the qualifications to get into this debate? 2% in at least four Democratic polls, either nationally or in early states, as well as 130,000 donors from at least 20 states and at least 400 in each state.
Here are five political questions:
1. What will the Biden-Warren dynamic be like?
There’s lots being made of the fact that this is the first time during this presidential campaign that Biden and Warren will share the debate stage. The question is whether they engage — and on what?
They signaled that they might mix it up. Warren has gotten attention for her myriad plans, but a Biden adviser told CNN that the former vice president will likely argue in the debate that “we need more than plans.” One area ripe for debate is on bankruptcy law, an issue where they have a history.
2. Can Biden take the heat — again?
In the first two debates, varying candidates have picked fights with Biden — Harris on busing, Booker on criminal justice, and so on. And he’ll likely be the focus of criticism from other candidates because of his continued lead in the polls.
But despite some missteps on the campaign trail and a lackluster first debate, his brand has shown resiliency. He not only leads the race nationally and in many state polls, but he’s also extremely well liked among the Democratic base, something you’d likely never know if you only read Twitter, a point his campaign makes repeatedly.
That makes him a target for the other candidates, who have to be wondering what it will take to dislodge him. Still, Democratic strategists see Biden as a fragile front-runner, and he has to have solid outings in these coming debates that will likely get more attention than the first couple of rounds.
3. Will the candidates double down on positions unpopular with general-election voters?
A lot of the moderate Democratic candidates are not on the stage for this debate— Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney did not qualify, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped out to run for the Senate.
That means the progressives are likely to again target Biden and focus on issues unpopular outside of Democrats, like “Medicare for All” as a replacement to private insurance, health care for immigrants in the country illegally and decriminalizing border crossings.
4. Do Sanders and Warren maintain their nonaggression pact?
Warren is getting lots of attention and was not only the most popular candidate among Democrats in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, she’s now caught up with — and even passed in some instances — fellow progressive Sanders in an average of the polls.
That has to grate on Sanders, even if people close to him continue to say that he sees Warren as an ally for the kind of change he wants to see in the country. They have maintained that Sanders will not go after Warren unless they are the last two standing, but they also privately point out differences, such as on foreign policy and party politics. It’s probably not the time yet for Sanders to need to go after Warren, but could some prickliness begin to emerge?
5. What kind of chances do candidates needing a breakout take?
If a candidate hasn’t had a moment yet, they now have a chance to do something to gain attention and create a spark for their campaign before a large audience.
Yang, for one, is promising to do something no one’s done. What exactly? No one knows, but Yang is hoping you tune in.
At the same time, it’s not clear how many people will tune in. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that more people said they weren’t going to watch (42%) than said they would (38%).