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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 SwalwellJuan Williams: Defeated Trump is in legal peril Taylor Swift allows song to be used in campaign ad Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' 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 ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly 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 BidenTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation US records 2,300 COVID-19 deaths as pandemic rises with holidays 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 ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Obama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up 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 CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol 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 InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge MORE (D) has centered his pitch solely on combating climate change. Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Hickenlooper ousts Gardner in Colorado, handing Democrats vital pickup Lobbying world MORE (D-Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.) are competing with Biden for the centrist slot. And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' 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 ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world 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 BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D) or Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats frustrated, GOP jubilant in Senate fight Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  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 WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform Harris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence 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.”