Democratic presidential candidates taking part in two debates in Detroit starting Tuesday are likely to take a confrontational approach with each other — because for some, this is their last chance to stay relevant in the 2020 race.
“I think they’re all going to try and be way more aggressive,” said Amanda Renteria, Hillary Clinton’s national political director in 2016 and chair of Emerge America, which supports Democratic women running for office. “This time, everybody knows what they’re going into, the jitters are gone, and you have to do whatever you’re going to do to get into the next round.”
The first 10 candidates tangle Tuesday, when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will be the headliners competing to be the leading voice for progressive positions. Wednesday’s lineup will feature former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in most polls, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dominated their matchup in the first debate in June.
Both two-hour debates begin at 5 p.m. PDT and will be broadcast on CNN. Here’s what to watch for:
Sanders versus Warren: The longtime progressive allies share the view that the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. Their approaches differ, however, beyond Sanders’ description of himself as a democratic socialist and Warren’s identification as a capitalist who wants to overhaul the system.
Warren, the former college professor, offers a variety of detailed policy plans to transform her ideas into laws. Sanders, the longtime activist and legislator, also has plans — he’s the lead author of Senate legislation that would create a government-run health care system, for example — but he banks on his ideas being swept into law by “a political revolution.”
Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a professor of gender studies and political science at the University of Southern California, doubts that Sanders will attack Warren, even though he has slipped in recent weeks in the polls even as she has risen. If he does, he risks tainting the messenger for some of the ideas that he champions.
“It doesn’t make sense to attack her,” she said.
Harris versus Biden — and Booker? Biden looked tired and ill-prepared in the first Democratic debate. Harris took advantage to dominate the evening, attacking Biden for his 1970s opposition to school busing for desegregation and recent comments in which he boasted of his ability to work with segregationist senators early in his Senate career. It gave Harris an instant jolt in the polls, though recent surveys indicate it has dissipated.
Renteria said it’s an open question whether Harris is “going to be able to do that again, and in what fashion.”
For Biden, there’s a lot on the line. He built his lead in the polls on the strength of Democrats’ belief that he’s best-positioned to defeat President Trump next year.
“If he looks weak with other Democrats, people will go shopping,” Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum said Monday at an online forum sponsored by the USC Center for the Political Future. “They might come back to him eventually, but they’re going shopping for someone else.”
Biden will be fighting a two-front war Wednesday — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has called him the “architect of mass incarceration” for his support of a 1994 crime bill toughening sentences for many federal crimes. Biden shot back that when Booker was mayor of Newark, N.J., the city’s Police Department detained or arrested blacks at twice the rate of whites.
Look for Booker to stress Wednesday that he would be much better at turning out voters of color in the states that Clinton narrowly lost in 2016 — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Is there a moderate in the house? Trump’s supporters were happy to see virtually the entire Democratic field support giving health care to undocumented immigrants and a handful back eliminating private health care insurance — positions well to the left side of the spectrum that could hurt the party’s nominee in the general election.
Among top-tier candidates, Biden holds down the center — he opposes Medicare for All in favor of allowing people to buy into Medicare, and he’s not in favor of extending full health benefits to undocumented immigrants.
“There’s room for the other moderates if Biden stumbles for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his moderation,” said Elaine Kamarck, author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”
Another candidate can step in if Biden “seems too old, he stumbles a lot, he puts his foot in his mouth — then there’s room for another moderate,” Kamarck said.
Candidates for a moderate replacement include former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney. Don’t be surprised if they go after Warren and Sanders on Tuesday.
The Trump effect: In the first Democratic debates in June, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand mentioned Trump the most — eight times — and afterward, she remained mired in the bottom of the polls. Democrats flipped the House in 2018 by talking more about health care than about Trump. Do the presidential candidates follow the same script?
“I think they need to talk about Trump because it needs to be framed as ‘Who has the best arguments against him?’ We don’t know that yet,” Kamarck said.
Last chance dance: Only seven of candidates have met the requirements to qualify for the next round of debates in September — 2% in four polls and 130,000 donors. For the rest, it’s now or never.
“For a lot of these candidates, if you don’t get through this debate and make an impression so that you get more donors and get some play in the polls, you’re not in the (September) debates,” Shrum said. ”And once that happens, I think you become irrelevant.”