Lesser-known Democrats attack each other in 2020 race

Lesser-known Democrats attack each other in 2020 race

DES MOINES, Iowa — Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellDemocratic lawmaker: Expelling Turkey from NATO 'should be on the table' Top State Department official arrives for testimony in impeachment probe 2020 Presidential Candidates MORE (D-Calif.) came to Miami to throw haymakers. The young congressman used his few minutes at last week’s debate to take on both the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a chief rival, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE, who also aims to win over younger voters.

The night before, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro engaged in the sharpest exchange of the evening with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), a fellow Texan whose star has dimmed in recent months.

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On both nights, some of the most contentious moments came when candidates seeking to break out of the 1-percent pack took aim at those polling just ahead of them, highlighting a fierce and growing competition to own particular constituencies within a fragmented field.

“A number of lower-tier candidates used the debates to try to climb into the top five, both by owning an issue and going after the candidate that is competing most directly for their segment of voters,” said Ben LaBolt, a veteran of former President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

The lesson many observers, and the candidates themselves, took away: While former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE is likely to weather the highest number of slings and arrows, no one is safe from attack.

Those watching the contest with a keen eye say the aim is to carve out a niche within the field — and to kneecap anyone who competes for that niche, whether they are a front-runner or an also-ran.

“When you’re struggling for attention and there’s a field this crowded, standing out anywhere helps. So you don’t necessarily need to take out a top-tier candidate, because chances are you won’t be able to. But you can still distinguish yourself and position yourself as the top of that tier, the next person ready to break out,” said Mo Elleithee, a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee who now heads the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown.

Swalwell, 38, is angling to corner the millennial market. He urged Biden, 76, to “pass the torch” to the next generation of leaders. Minutes later, he took aim at a rival who has made his own inroads among the youngest cohort, Buttigieg, over a police shooting that left a young black man dead. Swalwell told Buttigieg he should have fired the police chief; Buttigieg stared daggers in cold, silent response.

Castro, another candidate polling near 1 percent, sees O’Rourke as a chief rival, even as O’Rourke’s star has dimmed. Castro challenged O’Rourke’s knowledge of immigration policy, eroding one of the former congressman’s most important issues.

Each time a party’s presidential nomination is up for grabs, candidates who do not begin as front-runners tend to begin by defining their own lanes.

In 1992, former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) made himself the deficit hawk, and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMellman: Which is the right question? NY prosecutors urge appeals court not to block subpoena for Trump's tax returns Sherrod Brown: 'Terrible mistake' for Democratic nominee to support 'Medicare for All' MORE aimed to win over centrist Democrats. In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) raced to the top of the pack when he cornered anti-war voters. In 2016, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump grapples with Turkey controversy This week: Congress returns to chaotic Washington The Hill's Morning Report - Lawmakers return to work as Dem candidates set to debate MORE (R-Texas) staked out a position as the most conservative Republican, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) presented himself as the man in the middle.

This year, with a field so varied, the lanes are more narrow. Castro and O’Rourke are competing to be the prime Texan and the top voice on immigration reform. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeCNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate 2020 Presidential Candidates Warren environmental justice plan focuses third of climate investment on disadvantaged communities MORE (D) has centered his pitch solely on combating climate change. Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy Impeachment threatens to create conflicts for Democratic candidates 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the October showdown MORE (D-Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Minn.) are competing with Biden for the centrist slot. And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandLobbying world 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE (D-N.Y.) is trying to carve out a niche as the candidate for female voters.

“If you’re occupying the same lane as another candidate, you have to get them out of the way before you’re a contender for the broader field,” said Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of both Obama’s and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE’s campaigns. “Otherwise, you’re competing for the same votes in a very crowded primary.”

Inslee, one of three straight, white male governors in the race, has been the most aggressive at defining himself as better than his two rivals. He says he has a more progressive record than either Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy 5 things to watch in the latest Democratic debate Warren expresses support for Indigenous Peoples' Day MORE (D) or Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE (D) — especially on climate change.

“I'm the guy who banned fracking. There might be another couple of governors on the stage. They've done the opposite, they've embraced fossil fuels. I don't believe that's our future, so I'll have a different view from the other executives,” Inslee told The Hill last month.

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Speaking to voters this weekend in Des Moines, Inslee, who used to run a farm in eastern Washington, joked he is also better at bucking hay than Bullock.

Some Democratic strategists warn that owning a lane may be less effective today than it has been in the past, especially when front-running candidates like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.) seem to cross so many lanes.

“I think the challenge is that there aren’t a lot of single-issue voters in the Democratic primary,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic analytics expert. “Winning traction on a single issue can provide a toe hold for a candidate to draw more attention from potential supporters, and that’s likely the strategy behind that line of thinking.”

Those polling so far behind the front-runners have just one more chance to vault into the top tier, when they meet for debates later this month in Detroit on CNN.

The next debates in the fall will cull the field to just 10 candidates, including only those who reach higher polling and donor thresholds after the Democratic National Committee doubled the criteria for qualification from the June and July events.

It is unlikely that Castro, Swalwell, Inslee or Gillibrand will take out Biden — but their immediate concern is not beating Biden. It is securing a harder-to-obtain spot on the debate stage for the third round.

They can earn that spot by eliminating others eager for a spot on stage, rather than the front-running candidates.

“Draw distinctions where you can, and it doesn’t have to be with a top tier candidate,” Elleithee said. “You don’t see a lot of mid-ranked fighters take the title shot the next time out.”