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 BidenLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Fauci predicts high schoolers will receive coronavirus vaccinations this fall Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE will square off with Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Progressives' majority delusions politically costly Sinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case 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 Cruz Cruz puts hold on Biden's CIA nominee It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it Senate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants 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 CornynSenate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden gets involved to help break Senate logjam Overnight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels 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 YangAndrew Yang condemns attacks against Asian Americans Dozens of famous men support ,400 monthly payments for mothers for 'unpaid labor at home' Yang intervenes after man threatened with metal pole on Staten Island Ferry 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 Booker'Bloody Sunday' to be commemorated for first time without John Lewis It's in America's best interest to lead global COVID-19 vaccine distribution ABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent MORE (D-N.J.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote Biden turns focus to next priority with infrastructure talks 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.