The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do

The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do
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The Democrats seeking the presidency are entering the most critical phase yet of their campaigns with fewer than 100 days left before the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

There are 18 candidates left in the field, after Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus Lawmakers call for universal basic income amid coronavirus crisis Democrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' MORE (D-Ohio) became the latest to drop out last week. There are likely five candidates, at most, who have a realistic chance of becoming the nominee. 

What do they need to do?

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump shakes up WH communications team The Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic The Intercept's Ryan Grim says Cuomo is winning over critics MORE

Biden was the undisputed front-runner in the early stages and retains a slender lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average.

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But Biden has come under pressure from Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation Warren releases plan to secure elections during coronavirus pandemic On The Money: Trump officials struggle to get relief loans out the door | Dow soars more than 1600 points | Kudlow says officials 'looking at' offering coronavirus bonds MORE (D-Mass.) in particular. She has surpassed him in several national polls and is also leading the polling averages in the two vital early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden needs to improve across the board if his early strength is not to melt away.

The former vice president’s debate performances have been generally poor. At times he has meandered to such an extent that questions about his age and vigor become unavoidable. Biden is 76, which would make him the oldest person ever elected president if he won in 2020.

Biden has also struggled in terms of fundraising, trailing in fourth in money raised in the third quarter. His campaign last week dropped its prior objections to super PACs — a move presumably made out of necessity, but which drew criticism from Warren and her fellow progressive, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDrugmaker caps insulin costs at to help diabetes patients during pandemic The Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic Sen. Brown endorses Biden for president MORE (I-Vt.).

There is a broader problem, too. There is little evidence, by any metric, that Biden is sparking any great excitement among the Democratic base. 

Biden’s support has proven more durable than his critics expected, but he is nearing a moment of truth.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass)

Warren has shown far greater momentum than any other candidate in the race.

She can credibly claim to be a co-front-runner, at least, alongside Biden, thanks to her polling standing in the early states, her fundraising prowess and the large crowds she draws to her rallies.

But her prominence brings challenges too. At the most recent debate, in Ohio, Warren came under far more sustained attack from her rivals than ever before. She held up adequately but unspectacularly. And there will likely be more jabs to come, starting with the next debate in Georgia on Nov. 20.

Warren has often faced the critique that she is less electable against President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE than more centrist figures such as Biden. She and her supporters vigorously push back against the charge, but how persuasive she is on that point will be crucial, given the Democratic ardor for defeating Trump above all else.

Warren’s lead in Iowa is not a wide one — she is up by fewer than 4 points in the RCP average — and a loss there could put her whole strategy in peril.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders has bounced back since he had a heart attack earlier this month, delivering a vigorous “comeback” performance at the Ohio debate and holding a huge New York City rally at which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWhat the coronavirus reveals about the race grievance industry Democrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims MORE (D-N.Y.) delivered an emphatic endorsement of him.

For Sanders, the question is whether he can expand his support. While Warren’s standing in the polls has risen consistently over time, Sanders has plateaued at best. He has not risen above 20 percent support in the RCP national average since May. He stood at 17.3 percent on Friday afternoon.

Skeptics note that Sanders performed so strongly in 2016 in part because he was the only credible alternative to eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump, Biden set for tight battle in Florida We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Poll shows Biden with 6-point edge on Trump in Florida MORE. A multicandidate field has posed bigger challenges.

Still, Sanders retains a fervent base of support, which in turn has given him a lot of money. He raised more than any other candidate in the third quarter

Can Sanders use his money to somehow catapult himself past Warren in Iowa or New Hampshire? His viability as a potential nominee likely depends on it.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg launches new PAC to aid down-ballot candidates HuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Economists fear slow pace of testing will prolong recession MORE (D)

Buttigieg’s appeal is plain: He is a very youthful, media-savvy messenger for the same kind of centrism espoused by Biden, who is almost 40 years his senior.

Is that enough? Probably not, unless Biden’s bid truly implodes.

Still, Buttigieg has been making progress in opinion polls, particularly in Iowa. A recent survey from Iowa State University put him in second place, behind Warren, with 20 percent support in the Hawkeye State.

A strong performance in the first state could propel Buttigieg into real contention. But he has struggled mightily to elicit any significant support from black voters. Unless that changes, it will likely be fatal to any hopes he has of becoming the nominee.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation WhatsApp limiting message forwarding in effort to stop coronavirus misinformation The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update MORE (D-Calif.)

Harris has had a disappointing stretch of late. 

She briefly soared in the polls after mounting a vigorous assault on Biden on race-related issues in the first debates in Miami in late June. 

But she has slid since then and now appears to have been eclipsed by Buttigieg. She is running at around 5 percent in national polling averages, and is polling even lower than that in Iowa.

Getting voters to take a second look in such a crowded field is a challenge — and even more so for Harris, who has been dogged about questions as to her core beliefs and consistency throughout her campaign.

She can shine in debates, however, and will likely need to score big in the two remaining clashes this year if she hopes to vault back into real contention.

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerEnlisting tech to fight coronavirus sparks surveillance fears Democrats urge administration to automatically issue coronavirus checks to more people Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar Klobuchar's husband recounts battle with coronavirus: 'It just suddenly hit me' Hillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation Wisconsinites put lives on the line after SCOTUS decision MORE (D-Minn.)

Booker and Klobuchar are significant names on the national stage, but both have struggled to get traction in this race.

Hypothetically, they could have some massive debate moment, or Biden’s bid could fall apart, creating more room in the center-left lane in which they both run.

Short of that, though, they seem doomed to also-ran status.

Other candidates: Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHillicon Valley: Coronavirus tracking sparks surveillance concerns | Target delivery workers plan Tuesday walkout | Federal agency expedites mail-in voting funds to states | YouTube cracks down on 5G conspiracy videos Why being connected really matters for students Democratic senator criticizes Zoom's security and privacy policies MORE (D-Colo.), Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockPolitics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden moves to unify party before general election Poll shows Daines, Bullock neck and neck in Montana Senate race MORE (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D), former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyJohn Delaney endorses Biden Nevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Lobbying world MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order The Hill's Morning Report — ,000,000,000,000: GOP unveils historic US rescue effort Gillibrand endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Hawaii), Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE (D), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerProgressive advocates propose T 'green stimulus' plan Candidates want data privacy rules, except for their own campaigns Budowsky: Biden should pull together a 'dream team of rivals' MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests Pelosi: 'I usually always cast my vote for a woman' Pelosi: 'We'll have a woman president' someday MORE, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangJack Dorsey committing billion to coronavirus relief efforts Campaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis Andrew Yang: Calling coronavirus 'China virus' only used to incite 'hostility' MORE.