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 BidenThe Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen Fox's Ingraham mocks DNC over Nevada voting malfunctions: 'Are we a Third World country?' At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill The Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen Fox's Ingraham mocks DNC over Nevada voting malfunctions: 'Are we a Third World country?' MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen Surging Sanders looks for decisive win in Nevada Bloomberg to do interview with Al Sharpton MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHouse to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration Surging Sanders looks for decisive win in Nevada MORE have reached so far.

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge MORE (D-N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharThe Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration Surging Sanders looks for decisive win in Nevada MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandNow is the time for a US data protection agency The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren up, Bloomberg down after brutal debate Ginsburg, accepting lifetime achievement award, urges working fathers to take an active role in kids' lives MORE (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioNew York attorney general threatens to sue NYC over alleged taxi fraud Bloomberg compared civil libertarians, teachers union to NRA 'extremists' in 2013: report De Blasio endorses Sanders for president MORE, and Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFive takeaways from new fundraising reports for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria MORE (D-Hawaii), Seth MoultonSeth MoultonTrump set to confront his impeachment foes Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa The DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo MORE (D-Mass.) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' Democrats walk out of Trump's address: 'It's like watching professional wrestling' Trump set to confront his impeachment foes 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 HickenlooperThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Trump seeks to boost vulnerable GOP senator with Colorado rally Nonpartisan election forecaster moves Colorado Senate race to 'leans Democratic' MORE (D) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyLobbying world The Hill's Campaign Report: Four-way sprint to Iowa finish line John Delaney drops out of presidential race, Krystal and Saagar react 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 John TrumpWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Gov. Ron DeSantis more popular in Florida than Trump Sotomayor accuses Supreme Court of bias in favor of Trump administration 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."