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 BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates The Hill's 12:30 Report: Stocks sink as Trump fights with Fed, China Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates MORE.

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Joining them will be Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate Gillibrand unveils mental health plan MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellInslee seeking third term as governor after ending presidential bid The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Inslee drops out of 2020 presidential race MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperIf the Democratic debates were pro wrestling, de Blasio is comic relief Hickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives The Hill's 12:30 Report: Stocks sink as Trump fights with Fed, China MORE (D) tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangSurprise: Andrew Yang's favorite president is a Republican Yang: It's a 'mischaracterization' to say Democrats are for open borders Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Williamson unveils plan to create Cabinet-level Department of Peace 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 SandersDemocratic contenders unload on news media Biden's gaffes pile up, worrying some supporters Sanders campaign official praises Harris over clash with Biden on civil rights record 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 WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch 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 TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future 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 GabbardSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? 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.