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) RyanOffice of Technology Assessment: It's time for a second coming Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far GM among partners planning .3B battery plant in Ohio 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 BidenLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Ex-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Parnas says he doesn't think that Joe Biden did anything wrong regarding Ukraine 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 Ann WarrenEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders 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 SandersEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders 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 TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president 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-CortezAyanna Pressley's 'squad' of congresswomen offers support after she opens up about alopecia Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Artist paints Michelle Obama, other women as battered in campaign against domestic violence 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 ClintonFormer Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' NYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar 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 ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFormer insurance executive: 'Medicare for all' would eliminate jobs that are 'not needed' Buttigieg says he's proud to be a part of US system amid UK royal family drama Buttigieg asked about 'Mayo Pete' memes by New York Times ed board 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 HarrisOvernight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Team Trump criticizes Sanders for vote against USMCA 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 BookerNew Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Team Trump criticizes Sanders for vote against USMCA MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders says he's concerned about lost campaign time during impeachment trial Sanders touts vote against Trump trade deal backed by primary rivals New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar 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 BennetSanders says he's concerned about lost campaign time during impeachment trial Sanders touts vote against Trump trade deal backed by primary rivals Team Trump criticizes Sanders for vote against USMCA MORE (D-Colo.), Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBrent Budowsky: Bloomberg should give billion to Democrats Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Kamala Harris dropped out, but let's keep her mental health plan alive MORE (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D), former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyElizabeth Warren moves 'bigly' to out-trump Trump DNC goof: Bloomberg should be on debate stage Bloomberg decides to skip Nevada caucuses MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard on personal meeting with Sanders: 'He showed me the greatest respect' Warren-Sanders dispute thrusts gender into 2020 spotlight Deval Patrick knocks lack of diversity in Democratic debate 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 Fahr SteyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Senate approves Trump trade deal with Canada, Mexico | Senate Dems launch probe into Trump tax law regulations | Trump announces Fed nominees Steyer proposes cuts for low- and middle-income families' taxes Warren to Sanders: 'I think you called me a liar on national TV' MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson drops out of 2020 race Bill Press: Don't forget about Amy 2020 Democrats: Iran airstrike 'reckless,' 'could cost countless lives' MORE, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangEvelyn Yang shares that she was sexually assaulted by doctor Buttigieg campaign reaches agreement with staff union Panel: Is Andrew Yang playing to win with Dave Chappelle endorsement and Iowa bus tour? MORE.