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Democrats excluded from debate face battle for survival

Democratic presidential candidates who are still struggling to introduce themselves to early-state voters face a critical inflection point over the next several weeks, as they battle to keep their campaigns funded and operating even without the chance to participate in next month’s debate.
 
Some have acknowledged that their hopes of mounting a strong campaign ended when they failed to meet the threshold to make the debate stage.

In the past 10 days, three Democratic candidates — Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge MORE, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonBattle for Pentagon post in Biden Cabinet heats up US national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Overnight Defense: Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper | Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon | Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up | Pelosi says Esper firing shows Trump intent on sowing 'chaos' MORE (Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' MORE (N.Y.) — have suspended their campaigns.

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But others are soldiering on in hopes of qualifying for future debates, and of winning converts among voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who will be the first to allocate delegates.

“I think that the debate is missing something without me in it. But you know, we still know that we’re five and a half months from the Iowa caucuses, which is the first time that actual voters get to express a preference,” Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D) told The Hill in an interview. “Actual voters are still off on summer vacation. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Bullock said he has not considered ending his campaign, which he launched in April. His campaign has hired 25 staffers in Iowa, and he has several multi-day swings through the first-in-the-nation caucus state in the works.

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 has poured more than $23 million into his own presidential campaign, said he had “no intention of leaving the race” before Iowa’s February caucuses.

“I don’t have any pressure — financial pressure or political pressure — to drop out of the race,” Delaney told The Hill. “There’s nothing between now and the Iowa caucus that is going to change my opinion.”

Democratic strategists said candidates who miss the debate stage will face inevitable questions of whether they can — or should — continue their campaigns.

The most existential challenge any low-polling campaign faces is financial. If donor doors close, a campaign’s ability to continue functioning closes, too.

“A lot of time the decision is made for you because you are faced with laying off staff or not being able to make key hires. If the money is gone, so is the election,” said Corey Platt, a Democratic strategist who ran a super PAC backing Inslee. 

Missing the debate stage also gives candidates a moment to reflect on their own experience, Platt said.

Running for president is a grueling ordeal, both for the front-runners and those polling at the bottom of the pack. Whether the candidate is having fun on the trail, and whether their message is actually resonating with early-state voters, can determine how long the campaign continues.

“It’s hard to have fun, but if you are, then you should definitely stay in the race,” Platt said. “If you are in rooms, even small rooms, and you can feel the energy and connect with voters then you know that you might have a path to still be successful when more voters in early states start tuning in to the campaign.”

A handful of campaigns whose candidates failed to make the September debate stage have been quietly discussing alternative plans, according to people familiar with the talks. Delaney suggested there would be other “organized opportunities” going forward.

The candidates are wary, however, of participating in any unsanctioned debates, aware that it could mean being banished from official debates should they qualify in the future.

Several candidates say they are positioning themselves as an alternative to the shaky front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE, who leads two more progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSchwarzenegger says he would 'absolutely' help Biden administration Disney chair says he would consider job in Biden administration if asked Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill MORE (D-Mass.) in most public polls.

If Biden’s campaign comes unhinged, they hope to position themselves as the rightful heirs to the vast middle.

“I think it has become right now a three-way race with the vice president and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But I think most voters are looking for an alternative to the vice president,” Delaney said. “The vice president is effectively squatting on the more moderate voters in the party and I think that’s going to change.”

Bullock, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHarris taps women of color for key senior staff positions The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases MORE (D-Colo.) and others are banking on the same voters looking for alternatives to Biden.

Every candidate left off the stage chafes at the rules by which the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decides who qualifies for a debate, rules that require them to earn donations from 130,000 individuals across dozens of states and reach a polling threshold.

Bullock and others have lamented how much they have to spend to attract a single donor online — sometimes as much as $50 or $60 just to earn a $1 donation.

“They may have had good intentions, but they’re certainly keeping good candidates off the stage just when the voters are starting to pay attention,” Bullock said of the DNC. “If we’re serious about being a party of more than just DC and the coast, we should actually be disappointed that we’re relying on these arbitrary guidelines.”

Michael Morley, a senior adviser to Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Now's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg MORE’s (D-Ohio) campaign, said in a statement that there were “more constructive ways for us to connect to voters than a mad dash to spend $50 to get a $1 contribution.” 

Change is the one constant in presidential nominating contests. At this point in 2007, both parties’ eventual nominees, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainChoking — not cheating — was Trump's undoing Gabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris: 'Of course I will' take COVID-19 vaccine Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccine George Clooney says Amal beat him and Obama in a free throw contest MORE, trailed front-running rivals, albeit with higher levels of support. In September 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryChip Roy fends off challenge from Wendy Davis to win reelection in Texas The Memo: Texas could deliver political earthquake The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states MORE (R) was riding a wave of support over Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him WaPo reporter says GOP has less incentive to go big on COVID-19 relief COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks MORE, the eventual GOP nominee.

“Look,” Bullock said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.