5 things to watch in first night of Democratic debate

DETROIT — The top match-up of Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate will be between Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed flight Neil Young opposes use of his music at Trump Mt Rushmore event: 'I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux' Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman says Biden is moving left MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low MORE (D-Mass.), two of the primary field’s most prominent liberals vying for the support of the party’s progressive base.

But with eight other candidates on stage, there will be plenty to watch for when the second round of presidential debates kicks off in Detroit this week.

Here are five things to watch for during the Tuesday night showdown:


1. How will Warren and Sanders handle one another?

Warren and Sanders have long carried on a cordial relationship, even meeting in the final weeks of 2018 to discuss their impending presidential campaigns.

But that was before the two candidates found themselves neck and neck for second place behind former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCan Republicans handle the aftermath of Donald Trump? Biden seeks to supplant Trump in Georgia Trump's Mount Rushmore stunt will backfire MORE and competing for the support of many of the same liberal and progressive primary voters.

Whether the Sanders-Warren peace treaty holds up when they go head-to-head on the debate stage for the first time is one of the biggest question marks hanging over the Tuesday night showdown.

Aides and advisers to both candidates have downplayed the prospect of a confrontation between the two senators, asserting that they are intent on making the Democratic primary a contest of ideas rather than a bitter political brawl.

Still, while they have long maintained a cordial political relationship, they will inevitably find themselves pitching a similar message to a similar support base, and how they handle each other in the midst of the debate could test the resolve of their nonaggression pact.


2. Will some candidates go on the attack?

If the first round of debates in June carried any lessons for the candidates, it was that a showdown with a top-tier candidate can pay dividends in the form of polling gains and fundraising boosts. Indeed, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE (D-Calif.) saw such payoffs after her high-profile confrontation with Biden over school busing.

While more attention has been paid to the possibility of another clash between Harris and Biden — or even Biden and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Joe Biden must release the results of his cognitive tests — voters need to know GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (D-N.J.) — during Wednesday’s debate, it will be interesting to see whether any of the candidates on Tuesday night will go on the attack.

Several middle- to lower-tier candidates have little to lose by going on offense, and a heated exchange with one of top-tier hopefuls could end up being the shot in the arm their campaigns need.

But there’s still some risk involved. Top-tier candidates are usually in the top tier because they’re popular with voters, and an attack on them seen as unfair or unnecessary could backfire. At the same time, few if any candidates want to be accused of going negative, especially this early in the cycle.

Whether someone is willing to take that risk Tuesday remains to be seen.

3. What can Buttigieg do to regain some momentum?

Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems, GOP dig in on police reform ahead of House vote MORE entered the presidential race as a relative unknown on the national stage. That changed in March, however, with a surge of media exposure that helped boost the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s candidacy to top-tier status.

But his performance in the first Democratic debate last month was relatively muted. He delivered a well-received response to questions about the fatal police shooting last month of a black man in South Bend but made little noise after that.

What’s more, his polling numbers have remained relatively stagnant since the debate, with most recent surveys showing him hovering between 4 and 7 percent. Tuesday night’s debate will give him another chance to stand out and inject new energy into his campaign.

Buttigieg will have something the second time around that he didn’t in the first round of debates: new policy proposals. He’s rolled out a handful of plans this month, including one to boost national service and another aimed at combating “racist structures and systems” in the U.S., dubbed the Douglass Plan after famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

4. Can O’Rourke revive his campaign?


For all the fanfare that surrounded Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down GOP lawmakers join social media app billed as alternative to Big Tech MORE (R-Texas) and the subsequent launch of his presidential campaign, the former Texas congressman has struggled to gain sustainable traction in the primary contest.

He is consistently polling in the low single digits and raised only $3.6 million in the second quarter of 2019 — little more than half the amount he raised in the 24 hours after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

O’Rourke will have a chance Tuesday night to distinguish himself from the pack and recapture some of the Democratic enthusiasm that helped propel him into the national spotlight in the first place.

One area in which O’Rourke may try to stand out on Tuesday night is immigration. He’s ramped up his outreach on the issue in recent weeks, visiting three detention centers where migrants are being held and headlining a rally outside a Border Patrol facility in Texas.

Regardless of whether he scores big at Tuesday’s debate, it won’t be O’Rourke’s last chance to make an impression on the debate stage. He’s already met the steeper requirements to qualify for the third set of Democratic debates in September.



5. Will a centrist rival to Biden emerge?

Biden has so far carried the mantle of the party’s moderate wing in the primary contest. But a handful of other candidates, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats: A moment in history, use it wisely The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (D-Minn.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary MORE and Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockLincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night Lincoln Project backs Bullock in Montana Senate race MORE among them, have also cast themselves as compromise-minded centrists, and the debate could give them to stand out on that front.

In sharing a debate stage with Warren and Sanders, the field’s two most progressive candidates, the moderates will have the chance to draw sharp contrasts on policy and political style.

A confrontation with one of the top-tier progressives could also lend much-needed momentum to the more moderate candidates’ campaigns. Klobuchar is polling consistently in the low single digits, while Hickenlooper and Bullock are faring even worse.

Whether one of them will be able to successfully make the argument that a centrist will fare better against President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE than a progressive will be one of the night’s major tests.