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 BidenTrump says lawmakers should censure Schiff Schiff says committees will eventually make impeachment inquiry transcripts public Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Krystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate 2020 Democrats recognize Pronouns Day MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg tweeted support for 'Medicare for All' in 2018 Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate MORE.

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Joining them will be Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick Lobbying world MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSchumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy Impeachment threatens to create conflicts for Democratic candidates MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellLawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump Democratic lawmaker: Expelling Turkey from NATO 'should be on the table' Top State Department official arrives for testimony in impeachment probe MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis Gardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe 2020 Presidential Candidates MORE (D) tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Saagar Enjeti: No question, Andrew Yang won Ohio debate Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonWilliamson slams DNC, Tuesday's debate: 'This would all be funny if it weren't so dangerous' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the October showdown 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 SandersBiden defends ties to former fossil fuel executive at climate forum Monmouth acknowledges poll showing Biden losing support was 'outlier' Democratic contenders unload on news media 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 Ann WarrenButtigieg tweeted support for 'Medicare for All' in 2018 Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets 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.

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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 TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff 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 GabbardThird-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart Poll: Almost half of voters say debates are best gauge of candidate's standing The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis 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.