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 BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Briahna Joy Gray: IRS needs proper enforcement mechanisms to tax wealthy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal after pushback Scalise carries a milk carton saying Harris is 'missing' at the border Harris to visit Mexico and Guatemala 'soon' MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegWhite House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Senate Republicans label Biden infrastructure plan a 'slush fund' MORE.


Joining them will be Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandIntelligence leaders warn of threats from China, domestic terrorism Jon Stewart accuses VA of being 'an obstacle' to burn pits medical care Family policy that could appeal to the right and the left MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats get good news from IRS Senators press for answers in Space Command move decision Biden announces first slate of diverse judicial nominees MORE (D-Colo.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellTrump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting Meghan McCain calls on Gaetz to resign Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperOn The Trail: How marijuana went mainstream Senators press for answers in Space Command move decision Senate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants MORE (D) tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangEvelyn Yang pens children's book on sexual abuse, reveals she was sexually assaulted as a child Yang pitches plan to revive Broadway, live performances in New York Yang returns to campaign trail following kidney stone MORE and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Refusal to hike minimum wage is part of 'rigged economy' Rush Limbaugh dead at 70 Marianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" 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 SandersHarris puts DC condo up for sale Harris in difficult starring role on border The Hill's Morning Report - Biden may find zero GOP support for jobs plan 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 WarrenForgiving K in school loans would free 36 million student borrowers from debt: data IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  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 TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts 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 GabbardNew co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials Tulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 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.