Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate

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Former Vice President Joe Biden will be flanked by progressive heavyweights Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the next Democratic debate Thursday in Houston, marking the first time the sharp ideological divide among the top Democratic contenders will be on full display.

The race comes as Biden retains a double-digit lead in most national polls over the rest of the Democratic field, making him the presumptive front-runner, while Warren and Sanders are vying to emerge as the former vice president’s top rival in 2020.

{mosads}Biden’s lead allows him to play a more defensive game, and he will need to avoid any gaffes after uneven debate performances so far, strategists said. However, he can’t coast by: some see Biden’s lead as shaky and believe he’s out of touch with a party that is skewing left and hungry for new ideas, while concerns linger about his health and his age.

There are also red flags for Biden in early contest states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, two states where he cannot rely on what has been loyal support from African American voters. ACBS News poll released on Sunday shows Biden trailing Warren by 1 point in New Hampshire, while he leads Sanders by just 4 points in Iowa. 

Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, are at risk of splitting the progressive vote and hence delivering the nomination to Biden, who is still seen as the candidate most likely to beat President Trump — the calculation that matters most to Democrats. They will therefore need to convince a skeptical party that they can prevail in a general election at a time when Republicans are already attacking them as socialists with radical ideas.

“He has one main objective: to lay out his vision and his plans to move the country forward,” said one Biden ally who has spoken to vice president about the debate. “Let’s put our vision up against [Warren and Sanders] and see how it compares.”

The ally added Biden needs to put Warren and Sanders on the spot on their progressive proposals. 

“How are you going to do all these things without raising taxes on the middle class?” the ally said. “How are you going to trash Barack Obama, who got the most expansive health care plan done? And now you’re going to say it’s not enough. Give me a break. They forget how hard this shit was to do.” 

Biden has had uneven performances in the two Democratic primary debates so far. He came under attack over his stance on racial busing from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in June, and though he was widely seen as having performed better in July, it was not seen as a standout performance.

Yet Biden’s support has been consistent in the polls. RealClearPolitics’s national polling average showed Biden leading the Democratic field with 29.8 percent support, followed by Warren at 18.7 percent and Sanders at 18 percent. The rest of the Democratic field was in single digits.

A second Biden ally told The Hill that the former vice president does not necessarily have to come out swinging in the debate, and instead needs to showcase his stamina on the debate stage. 

“He doesn’t have to win. He doesn’t have to be Cassius Clay. But he has to show that, like older Muhammad Ali, he can take a punch and still throw one back,” the ally said. 

“He needs one good moment on offense and one good moment deflecting on defense. As long as he does that, he will have regained the sense of strength and command that drove a lot of his electability. People remember the debater who parried with [Sarah] Palin and leveled Paul Ryan. You’re not gonna see that when there are 10 people on a stage. But you want to recapture the agility and nimbleness that was lacking in his first big debate moment this cycle.”

Yet Biden and his campaign have a history of self-inflicted wounds and avoidable mistakes.  

A CNN story this weekquoted a Biden aide saying the former vice president would argue that Democrats need someone who can offer “more than plans,” in what would be a veiled attack on Warren. 

One Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any campaign accused the campaign of making a rookie mistake by telegraphing a potential line against a rival he is set to face for the first time in a debate.

“This is such malpractice by them,” the strategist said. “If you telegraph your hits they’re gonna be ready and waiting with a good response and counterattack.” 

Warren is quickly emerging as a potential serious rival to Biden, having climbed significantly in the polls this year after unveiling a slew of detailed progressive policy proposals, encompassing everything from health care reform to gun control as part of her “Warren has a plan for that” strategy. 

Those proposals, including eliminating private insurance, have raised concerns about whether she is too far away from the mainstream to beat Trump in 2020.

The debate would now afford Warren her first opportunity to contrast her policy ideas against Biden, who has been a staunch defender of the centrist platform that delivered Obama two terms in the White House.

That approach has exposed Biden to criticism that he has not beenprogressive enough on a number of policies, including health care and climate change. 

{mossecondads}“This is the match, I think, that everyone’s been waiting for, to see Biden on the same stage as Elizabeth Warren,” Deshundra Jefferson, a former Democratic National Committee official, said. “This is people’s chance to evaluate the two of them against each other. 

At the same time, Warren will also need to look to stand out from Sanders as the two senators look to catch Biden in the polls.

Warren is seen as having the momentum at this stage of the race, having made waves with the big crowds she’s attracting to campaign events across the country, but Sanders retains strong and very loyal support after his failed 2016 run.

Both candidates have declined to go after each other, but they may need to find subtle ways to differentiate themselves or risk splitting the progressive vote during the primaries and end up empty-handed in the fight for the nomination.

“He’s still a pretty solid No. 2,” Jefferson said of Sanders. “I think for him, actually, there is going to be a challenge of making sure that he still breaks through because you have the other strong progressive on the stage, who hasn’t shared the stage with Biden.” 

The three candidates will also need to contend with other lower-polling candidates, including Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who have stagnated in polls despite attracting strong attention at different stages of the race.

In previous debates some of the sharpest exchanges have come from attacks from lower-polling candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) blasting Biden as seeking to “have it both ways” on issues, or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro hitting the former vice president’s immigration stance. 

But when it comes to the interaction between the top three, strategists ultimately expect a more defensive game. 

“I don’t think those three are going to have as many points as you saw in the last debate,” Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, told The Hill. “I’m not sure the fireworks are there, and quite frankly, I’m not certain that the three of them think they need to hit each other yet.” 

Tags 2020 Democratic debate Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Democratic debate Democratic debates Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Paul Ryan Pete Buttigieg

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