5 key questions ahead of Thursday's Democratic debate

MIAMI — The first night of the Democratic primary debate is in the books, and now the second round of 10 contenders is about to take the stage. 

Thursday night will be headlined by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter As VP Kamala Harris could be a powerful voice for women's retirement security The clock is ticking and Trump is still taking a shellacking MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 Biden town hall questioner worked as speechwriter in Obama administration: report MORE.


Joining them will be Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize Dueling town halls represent high stakes for Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats sense momentum for expanding child tax credit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellGraham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' President Trump, Melania Trump test positive for COVID-19 House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Democratic super PAC pulls remaining ads from Colorado Senate race MORE (D) tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangPelosi spars with CNN's Blitzer over COVID-19 aid: 'You really don't know what you're talking about' The shape of guaranteed income Biden's latest small business outreach is just ... awful MORE and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 Marianne Williamson: Democratic convention 'like binge watching a Marriott commercial' MORE.

Here are five key questions ahead of Thursday's debate:

How much incoming fire will Biden face?

Nobody mentioned the former vice president’s name on Wednesday night, but Biden’s team believes his rivals on stage tonight are preparing to go after him.

Biden adviser Symone SandersSymone SandersBooker calls Pence 'a formidable debater' ahead of VP debate Biden will participate in next debate with 'necessary' safety precautions, campaign aide says Biden adviser: 'We are not concerned, because we are being safe' MORE told reporters at the debate on Wednesday that she expects some contenders will take their shots but that Biden intends to stay focused on his own agenda.

“He will be focused on speaking to the American people about what he plans to do,” she said.

Biden is the clear leader in the Democratic primary, with leads stretching into the double-digits nationally and in most early state polls.

So far at least, Biden has been the Teflon candidate. He has endured several potentially damaging controversies — such as his remarks last week about being able to work with segregationist senators decades ago — but nothing has stuck to him.

Biden will look to keep rolling on Thursday night, as the other contenders are expected to go after him on everything from his vote to authorize military action in Iraq under former President George W. Bush to his defense of the credit card industry and support for a crime bill in the 1990s.

Will Sen. Sanders deliver? 

The battle to be the Democratic Party’s progressive standard bearer is heating up between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Government watchdog to investigate allegations of Trump interference at CDC, FDA MORE (Mass.).

Warren has been gaining on Sanders in the polls and her standout performance on Wednesday night underscores the threat she poses to his campaign.

Sanders has clearly taken notice — he took a swipe at her last week over a story about centrist Democrats rallying behind Warren because they want anyone but Sanders to be the nominee.

Some Democrats believe Sanders is being underestimated. They say his fervent base of support is stronger than is reflected in the polls and that when voters begin to cast ballots, his infrastructure and get-out-the-vote efforts will pay dividends.

But Sanders must also chase down Biden, and the pressure will be on Thursday night to remind Democratic primary voters about why they were drawn to his insurgent 2016 campaign.  

Can Buttigieg reset his campaign?

Buttigieg has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 primary but he enters Thursday night with a racially charged controversy threatening to consume his campaign.

It has been a tense and dispiriting week for the South Bend, Ind., mayor, who has largely been off the campaign trail to deal with an officer-involved shooting in his hometown.

Last week, Sgt. Ryan O’Neil, who is white, shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man, claiming that Logan approached him with a knife. O’Neil did not have his body camera on for the encounter.

Black leaders in South Bend have accused Buttigieg of turning a blind eye to systemic racism in the city’s police department. The incident has dredged up another controversy from his early days in office, when he demoted the city’s first black police chief.

Protesters have been confronting Buttigieg at town hall events, putting the spotlight on his management of the police department and how his decisions and policies have affected African Americans.

Buttigieg’s aides and allies say he is confronting the matter head on, canceling fundraisers and campaign events and meeting with community leaders and members of the victim’s family to hear about their concerns.

But the controversy underscores Buttigieg’s greatest challenge: attracting support from black voters, a key constituency in the Democratic primary.

Can Harris reignite her campaign?

After a promising start, Harris has faded into the background of the Democratic primary.


The California Democrat has raised enormous sums of money and attracted thousands of people to her campaign launch.

But since then, some Democrats believe she has been too cautious and scripted. She has fallen into fourth or fifth place in the polls.

Still, many Democrats view the former California attorney general as a strong political talent, and she’ll be looking to make the case that she’s best suited to “prosecute” the case against President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE on Thursday night.

Will a low-polling candidate break through?

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro was the biggest winner among the long shots Wednesday night, pivoting off of immigration to announce his presence in the Democratic primary.

And Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardHarris faces biggest moment in spotlight yet Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film MORE (Hawaii) was the most searched name of the night, with the Iraq war veteran raising her profile by making the case against U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.

Which dark horse candidate will stand out on Thursday night?

Yang has a propensity for viral moments and his universal basic income proposal is bound to draw some interest.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Bennet have been attacking socialism, and on Thursday night they’ll both have an opportunity to take Sanders head on.