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 BidenDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisConway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Beleaguered Biden turns to must-win South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegKlobuchar, Steyer unable to name Mexico's president in pointed interview Democrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage MORE.


Joining them will be Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHillicon Valley: US hits Huawei with new charges | Judge orders Pentagon to halt 'war cloud' work amid Amazon challenge | IRS removes guidance on Fortnite game currency Gillibrand proposes creating new digital privacy agency Lobbying world MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetToward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates Trump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states Sanders calls James Carville 'a political hack' MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellChris Wallace: 'Just insane' Swalwell is talking impeaching Trump again McCarthy says Trump did not interfere in Roger Stone case House intelligence briefing on worldwide threat assessment delayed MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperSenate Democrats outraise Republicans, but GOP has cash edge Lobbying world GOP leader warns lawmakers on fundraising: 'Getting our ass kicked' MORE (D) tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangTrump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states More accusers come forward after Evelyn Yang breaks silence on alleged assault by OBGYN Sanders leads Biden in latest Nevada poll MORE and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonDemocrats: The road to kumbaya The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Pelosi take the gloves off; DNC wants Iowa recanvass Iowa and New Hampshire haters should think twice 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 SandersSaagar Enjeti rips Biden over testy exchange in Iowa Biden gets in testy exchange in Iowa: 'You're a damn liar' Biden defends ties to former fossil fuel executive at climate forum 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 WarrenDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Massachusetts Democrats question deployment of Border Patrol teams to sanctuary cities Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage 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 TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record 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 GabbardSanders leads Biden in latest Nevada poll Yang: NYC should implement universal basic income The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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.