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Nerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit

Democratic presidential hopefuls are already throwing punches ahead of next week’s debates in Detroit, underscoring the pressure candidates are under to have a big moment and ensure their survival in the crowded race.

The timing and ferocity of the infighting reflects a stark reality for many of the candidates — it’s desperation time for those who are struggling to qualify for the third debate and who may be making their final appearance in front of a national audience next week.

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Contenders must reach 2 percent in at least four qualifying polls and secure 130,000 donors to qualify for debates in September — a high bar that only former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden offers support to union organizing efforts Senate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill NFL's Justin Jackson praises Sanders for opposing Biden's USDA nominee MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBrown vows Democrats will 'find a way' to raise minimum wage Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden vs. Trump, part II Chasten Buttigieg jokes about his husband biking home from work MORE have reached so far.

Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerObama says reparations 'justified' Congressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (D-N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOpen-ended antitrust is an innovation killer FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot Five big takeaways on the Capitol security hearings MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandPentagon launches civilian-led commission to address military sexual assault Capito asks White House to allow toxic chemicals rule to proceed Lobbying world MORE (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioCuomo asks New York AG to appoint independent attorney to investigate sexual harassment claims Ocasio-Cortez: Detailed sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo 'painful to read' De Blasio calls for investigation into former aide's claims against Cuomo MORE, and Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi 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 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (D-Hawaii), Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanTim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot Acting chief acknowledges police were unprepared for mob Six ways to visualize a divided America MORE (D-Ohio) are among the candidates who haven’t reached both thresholds.

That raises the pressure they face to have some kind of moment during the two nights of debates in Detroit that will allow them to break from the field — as Harris did when she went after Biden on the issue of busing. That became the most talked-about moment of two nights of debates in June.

The top contenders are also facing make-or-break moments. Biden cannot afford a second debate lapse, while Warren, Harris and Sanders are feeling pressure to establish themselves as the candidate most likely to give him a run for the nomination.

Biden’s allies worry that a second poor performance would completely deflate his candidacy. His rivals smell blood in the water and a weak front-runner.

The former vice president will be flanked at the debate by Harris and Booker, his two most vocal critics in the race. The African American senators have hammered Biden over his record on race, from rhetoric that they deem offensive to his decades-old support for a crime bill and his opposition to a federal busing program.

Biden has telegraphed that he intends to draw attention to their own records on civil rights, including Booker’s time as mayor of Newark and Harris’s stint as attorney general of California.

Meanwhile, Sanders has been ramping up his attacks against Biden, accusing him of spreading “lies” about "Medicare for All," an issue that electrifies the liberal base but worries centrist Democrats.

“We are ready to expect the unexpected,” a Biden campaign adviser said.

The adviser said the campaign is bracing for attacks from Booker on the crime bill, Harris on busing, de Blasio on trade and workers’ rights, Gillibrand on women’s rights, and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro on the Obama administration’s deportations.

“Everyone is looking for their T-shirt moment,” the campaign adviser said, a reference to Harris, whose campaign immediately began selling T-shirts with a picture of her as a young girl waiting for a bus after her exchange with Biden at the first debate.

Biden’s tangling with Booker has elevated the New Jersey senator and raised anticipation for their showdown at the debate. Some Democrats question that strategy, noting that Booker has otherwise struggled for traction in the race.

“It seems like a net negative [for Biden],” said Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko. “It seems like his best path to victory would be not saying a word.”

While Biden will be the center of attention, the weak spots for the other top contenders have come into sharp relief in recent weeks, and the moderators are all but certain to dig in on those points.

Buttigieg came hot out of the gate and raised more money than any contender in the second quarter, but he has been unable to break through with black voters, a key constituency in the Democratic primary. At an NAACP forum this week, Buttigieg was on the defensive over how his policies had impacted people of color in South Bend and over the racial makeup of his campaign staff.

“We are still on that journey, and it is not done,” Buttigieg said.

Harris has been criticized for being slippery on policy matters, with critics saying that she’s been unclear on defining issues of the race, such as how she’d pay for Medicare for All and whether she supports abolishing private insurance.

Biden telegraphed this week that he’ll press Harris on the matter.

“I find the people who say they are for Medicare for All but are not going to tax the middle class because you don't need to do that ⁠— come on,” Biden told reporters in Detroit. “What is this, some fantasy world here?”

Sanders has been hammering away at Biden, who is the lone top contender to oppose his Medicare for All plan.

But Sanders and Warren will have their work cut out for them on the first night of debates, as they’ll be surrounded by centrist Democrats, such as Klobuchar, former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's second impeachment trial begins Sanders says Biden sees progressives as 'strong part of his coalition' MORE (D) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.), who are eager to make the case that the party must resist being dragged too far to the left.

“We plan to make Medicare for All a big focus of our debate strategy,” said Michael Hopkins, an aide to Delaney. “We’ve seen from the president that he intends to make socialism one of his big talking points, so when you have someone running on that agenda, as Sanders is, we risk electing Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE for a second term. It’s bad policy and bad politics.”

The low-polling candidates might be the biggest wild cards as they seek viral moments to help them stand apart from the 19 other candidates in Detroit.

Harris will share the debate stage with Gabbard, who said this week that the California Democrat “is not qualified” to be president because she "has no background or experience in foreign policy, and she lacks the temperament that is necessary for commander in chief."