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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 BidenMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform Sanders: Progressives will work to 'rally the American people' if Biden wins MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform Biden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden face off for last time on the debate stage Obama says he voted by mail: 'It's not as tough as a lot of folks think' Clean energy opportunities in a time of crisis MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE have reached so far.

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority MORE (D-N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDurbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandInternal Democratic poll: Desiree Tims gains on Mike Turner in Ohio House race Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize MORE (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDe Blasio's obsession with racial balance in schools has a clear victim: Asian students Citigroup executive to run for NYC mayor: report Treasury withheld nearly M from FDNY 9/11 health program MORE, and Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardHarris faces biggest moment in spotlight yet Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film MORE (D-Hawaii), Seth MoultonSeth MoultonTrump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes Overnight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified Bipartisan congressional task force recommends extending nuclear treaty with Russia MORE (D-Mass.) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanNow's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lincoln Project hits Trump for criticizing Goodyear, 'an American company' 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 HickenlooperBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Democratic super PAC pulls remaining ads from Colorado Senate race 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 John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' 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."