What to watch for in Thursday's Democratic debate

HOUSTON — Democratic presidential candidates will gather for a three-hour Texas showdown on Thursday.

For the first time, the top 10 candidates will be on stage at Texas Southern University after strict donor and polling criteria cut other candidates out of the running for the third set of Democratic debates.


It’s a pivotal point in the contest as voters begin to focus more closely on the Democratic race with the Iowa caucuses less than five months away.

Here’s what to watch for.


Top three meet for first time

Houston is the first time that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE will square off with Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to Clinton: 'This is not the kind of rhetoric that we need' Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Human Rights Campaign president rips Sanders's embrace of Rogan endorsement MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKlobuchar plans campaign rallies across Iowa despite impeachment trial Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges Warren pledges to release Trump records if elected MORE (D-Mass.), his two biggest challengers for the nomination.

Biden, the front-runner in the race, will be flanked by the more progressive Sanders and Warren, setting the stage for a battle over the party’s path.

It’s not clear that the trio will throw haymakers at one another.

Sanders and Warren have refused to attack one another so far, and instead have teamed up to defend their policies against attacks from more centrist Democrats.

Biden has been the target of attacks, but as the front-runner may have little interest in launching into attacks on his opponents.

Even if some punches are pulled, the debate should show off the ideologic and strategic battles that have characterized the campaign so far.

Biden has dug into the idea that he is the Democrat best-positioned to defeat Trump, partly because of his centrist politics. Sanders and Warren have a chance to puncture his case on electability while contrasting their more ambitious policy ideas.

The former vice president, for his part, could aim to warn Democrats they risk losing the White House without nominating the safe choice.


Can Biden show he’s ready?

Biden is the race’s front-runner, but has looked shaky on the debate stage, which has raised questions about his age and stamina.

Thursday’s three-hour debate will be a new endurance test for the former veep. 

He has proven that a broad swath of voters basically like him, and that his years in the Obama administration have bought him good will and support from much of the Democratic base.

His greatest vulnerability is that his age and penchant for gaffes will make him an easy target for Trump.

The president has said Biden is “not playing with a full deck” and the conservative aggregator Drudge Report ran a banner headline about Biden’s “eye filling with blood” when he suffered a burst blood vessel during a town hall event on CNN last week.

On Thursday, Biden will be under pressure to show Democratic voters that he’s fit, physically and mentally, for the presidency — and to do battle with Trump.


Can O’Rourke deliver in his home state?

After electrifying Texas Democrats by nearly toppling Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power GOP-Biden feud looms over impeachment trial MORE (R-Texas) in 2018, there were high hopes for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who entered the presidential race as a fundraising juggernaut and the perception that he would be a serious contender.

O’Rourke’s fundraising has since dried up and he’s bottomed out in the polls, leading some Democrats to wish that he would abandon his presidential run and return to Texas to challenge Sen. John CornynJohn CornynNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Democrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public MORE (R).

O’Rourke, who once represented El Paso, where 22 people were killed by a gunman last month, has rebooted his campaign to focus almost exclusively on gun violence and white nationalist racism.

Since the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke has led the Democratic field in calling for new restrictions on guns – including a proposed “mandatory buyback” — and blamed Trump for creating the conditions that have led to racial violence in the U.S.

He has abandoned traditional political campaigning, letting loose with curse words and visiting states that don’t usually attract candidates in an effort to highlight racial injustice.

It hasn’t boosted him in the polls, but there’s no better opportunity for O’Rourke to get a second look than to be pitted against the top contenders in his home state.

A Univision poll released this week found O’Rourke running even with Biden in Texas, a crucial Super Tuesday state with a massive delegate haul.


Can Yang keep rising?

Tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangJohn Leguizamo joins the 'Yang Gang' CNN to host two straight nights of Democratic town halls before NH primary Joe Rogan says he's probably voting for Bernie Sanders MORE has been one of the primary’s biggest surprises, coming from nowhere to raise millions from his “Yang Gang” of donors.

Along the way, Yang appears to be having the time of his life, basking in the unexpected energy around his campaign and going viral this week with a crowd-surfing video.

The sum total has Yang running about even in the polls with O’Rourke, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBlack caucus in Nevada: 'Notion that Biden has all of black vote is not true' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two Patrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' MORE (D-N.J.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll: 68 percent of Democrats say it 'makes no difference' if a candidate is a billionaire CNN to host two straight nights of Democratic town halls before NH primary Poll shows tight general election battle between Trump and top Democrats MORE.

On Thursday, Yang will be the only outsider and nonpolitician on stage.

Many Democrats still don’t know what to make of Yang, other than to acknowledge that the anti-establishment sentiment from 2016 is still running strong and creating a lane for an outsider to leave a mark on the race in 2020.

Now Yang faces his biggest moment yet and a chance for a real breakthrough as the focus narrows to a smaller group of candidates in Houston.


Democrats eye Texas as emerging battleground

Democrats have not won statewide in Texas in 25 years, but they have high hopes of ending that drought in 2020.

A Univision survey released this week found all of the top Democratic White House hopefuls leading Trump in Texas. The president only carried the Lone Star State by 9 points in 2016, the worst showing for a GOP presidential candidate in 20 years.

The Democratic National Committee is holding several events around Houston to highlight how they’re going after suburban voters in a state with four of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country.

After flipping two House seats in Texas in 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has circled six more as competitive in 2020, including three where the GOP incumbent is retiring rather than seeking reelection.

There is effectively no path for the GOP to the White House without Texas, andRepublicans here acknowledge that they’re playing defense for the first time in decades.

Still, political operatives will tell you that “Texas is still Texas” and that anyone predicting the state will go blue in 2020 is getting ahead of themselves.