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 BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden 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 WarrenTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Biden, Sanders tax plans would raise less revenue than claimed: studies 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 SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden 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 TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial 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-CortezSanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Impeachment trial forces senators to scrap fundraisers Ocasio-Cortez knocks Biden: He 'helped sell the invasion of Iraq' and 'spent years working to cut Social Security' 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 ClintonCollins walks impeachment tightrope Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party Hill.TV's Krystal Ball knocks Clinton's 'mean girl' comments against Sanders 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 ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Overnight Defense: Trump downplays troops' concussion injuries in Iran attack | Dems offer case against Trump on day two of trial | UN links Saudis to hack of Bezos' phone 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 HarrisCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor 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 BookerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two Patrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden leads Sanders by 7 in new national poll Sanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions 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 BennetWarren ad claims Trump fears her most Sanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans 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 DelaneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules Elizabeth Warren moves 'bigly' to out-trump Trump DNC goof: Bloomberg should be on debate stage MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard suing Clinton for defamation over 'Russian asset' comments Gabbard knocks Clinton's jab at Sanders: 'This isn't high school' The data is clear: A woman could win in 2020 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 SteyerTrump sets record for tweets as president on day House makes impeachment case Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Krystal and Saagar interview Tom Steyer's Press Secretary MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Marianne Williamson drops out of 2020 race Bill Press: Don't forget about Amy MORE, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangBiden leads Sanders by 7 in new national poll Sanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll Sanders holds 4-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE.