Campaign

Sanders, Warren get chance at Democratic debate to highlight contrasts

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will be center stage together for the first time at next week's Democratic debates in Detroit, putting two of the party's brightest liberal stars side by side as they battle to be the standard-bearer for the progressive left.

Sanders electrified the liberal base in 2016 as the sole serious challenger to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it's not clear if he can recapture that spark.

Warren has been riding a hot streak, steadily rising in the polls and capturing glowing media profiles. But Sanders has so far polled better in head-to-head match-ups against President Trump, raising questions in some quarters about Warren's electability.

National and early-state polls find Sanders and Warren running neck and neck for second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden. The next debate could help clarify which candidate will seize the progressive mantle and emerge as the top challenger to the centrist Biden.

But it's not clear there will be fireworks between the two, as there were when another candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), went after Biden in a late June debate over his past opposition to federal busing.

Warren and Sanders are friendly rivals, and they've made a point of not going scorched earth.

"They're so similar in their beliefs, that's why it's been so friendly so far," said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist with ties to the progressive movement. 

That's not to say the two don't have contrasts they might want to show off on July 30.

"The difference is more in their backstories," Feldman said. "Warren is a professor from Oklahoma with a deep understanding of the theories behind her plans and how she'd implement them. Bernie is from Brooklyn and takes the 30,000-foot approach with broad themes that have resonated with the electorate. The big question is whose style and whose plans are going to win out here."

The two campaigns insist that it will not get ugly between them.

In a recent video for supporters, Sanders's national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray vented frustration with the media, saying that "everything is characterized as if it's oppositional between our campaign and hers."

"It's not," said Ari Rabin-Havt, the chief of staff for Sanders's campaign. "It's very strange, because [the media] want a fight ... they want an oppositional fight. But that's not who Bernie Sanders is. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have known each other for decades. There are differences between them and those differences will get discussed on the campaign. But that's not a slug fest." 

There are also very few policy differences between the two. Both Sanders and Warren support "Medicare for All" and breaking up the big banks and big tech companies. Both would wipe out student loan debt, although they come at some of these issues from different angles.

The main issue that has emerged between them is that Sanders has fully embraced democratic socialism, whereas Warren supports progressive capitalism.

Still, philosophical and political fault lines are starting to emerge.

In an interview with The Atlantic over the weekend, Warren cast herself as leading a new progressive "movement."

"The difference now is, I see the path," Warren said. "I am an unexpected person to lead this movement. But I know that it's right."

For Sanders, the central question for his campaign is whether he can maintain - and grow - his base of support.

At the Netroots conference of grass-roots liberals earlier this month in Philadelphia, there were signs from some of his previous supporters that Sanders's moment might have passed. Some talked about wanting to back a woman in this year's contest.

"Bernie, I voted for him in the primary last time. I think I am feeling this whiplash of like, you know, I don't want to vote for an older white man this time," said Kate Ogden, 36, of Burlington, Vt.

"If he ended up with the nomination, I'd happily vote for him. But if I had to vote today in the primary, I would vote for Elizabeth Warren," she added.

Nicole Carty, a 31-year-old from Brooklyn, voted for Sanders in the 2016 cycle, but is now looking at Warren.

"I think Warren has a deeper analysis of systemic racism and sexism and how those are targeted programs in addition to economic exploitation," she said.

The Sanders campaign believes it is being underestimated.

Overall, Sanders has raised the most money of any Democratic candidate this year and has the largest base of grass-roots donors. And Sanders still has a massive network of volunteers in place from 2016 that the campaign believes will show up for him when it matters the most.

"Everyone else is building the plane while he's landing it," said one unaffiliated Democrat. "He's mobilizing his folks to show up. They have the same delegates, people this time and they know exactly who to go to in every state. It's still a very real possibility he could win in Iowa and New Hampshire, so Democrats should not be sleeping on him."

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