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 SwalwellGloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Grenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump visits a ventilator plant in a battleground state 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 ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt 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 BidenPoll: Majority 'sympathetic' to protesters, disapprove of Trump's response In a year like no other, we'll hold the election of our lifetime The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen 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 ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be 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 CruzGOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters Houston police chief responds to Trump advice on protests: 'Keep your mouth shut' Trump's vow to deploy military faces GOP pushback 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 InsleeMillions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks Trump rule limits states from blocking pipeline projects Inslee says Trump coronavirus response akin to if FDR called Pearl Harbor 'a hoax' MORE (D) has centered his pitch solely on combating climate change. Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetWarren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Congress headed toward unemployment showdown MORE (D-Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharWebb: The modern age of dissent versus riot Bottom line Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not MORE (D-Minn.) are competing with Biden for the centrist slot. And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 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, Biden battle to shape opinion on scenes of unrest Sessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines The Memo: Trump lags in polls as crises press 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 BullockGianforte wins Montana gubernatorial primary Daines wins GOP Senate primary in Montana Bullock wins Senate primary in Montana MORE (D) or Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill 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 Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Biden wins DC primary Warren asks Pentagon IG to probe military role in Trump's protest response MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Harris: Trump 'just tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op' 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.”