Five things to watch in final Democratic debate of 2019

Jessica Grose

Seven presidential hopefuls will take the stage in Los Angeles on Thursday night for the last Democratic primary debate of 2019, as they look to close out the year with a bang.

The debate — the smallest one to date — comes less than two months before the first round of primaries and caucuses in February. The Democratic field still lacks a clear front-runner in the early voting states, with polls showing a four-way race between former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Those four candidates won’t be the only ones on stage. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former tech executive Andrew Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer are also set to compete in the showdown on Thursday night.

Here are five things to watch in the debate.

Warren vs. Buttigieg

Long-simmering tensions between Warren and Buttigieg burst out into the open in recent weeks, culminating in a back-and-forth over transparency on the campaign trail. 

Warren pressed Buttigieg to open up his private fundraisers to the press, disclose his campaign bundlers and identify his clients from his time at McKinsey & Co. In turn, Buttigieg’s campaign criticized Warren for not releasing her tax returns from her decades of private and corporate legal consulting.

While both candidates have taken steps to address those critiques, the feud isn’t over, and there are clear incentives for Warren and Buttigieg to go on the attack when they take the stage.

Warren and Buttigieg are polling at or near the top of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, where they’re competing for many of the same undecided voters.

And Warren primed the pump for a clash when she took a thinly veiled shot at Buttigieg in a speech last week, criticizing presidential candidates who have tied their campaigns to a “naive hope that if Democrats adopt Republican critiques of progressive policies or make vague calls for unity that, somehow, the wealthy and well-connected will stand down.”

Will the DNC take heat?

When the seven candidates take the stage on Thursday, only one, Yang, will be a person of color. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the two remaining black contenders in the race, will not be there. Neither will the only Latino candidate, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who had qualified for the December debate, ended her bid for the Democratic nomination earlier this month and forfeited her place on the debate stage.

The relative lack of racial diversity on stage has drawn criticism from many Democrats, including several of the candidates themselves.

At the urging of Booker, all seven hopefuls who qualified for the December debate have signed on to a letter calling on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to lower the qualifying thresholds for the January and February debates.

The complaints about the DNC’s qualifying criteria are also financial. Some candidates have argued that billionaire contenders like Steyer can buy their way onto the debate stage by throwing millions of dollars of their own money into digital and television advertising, driving up their number of donations and increasing their name recognition.

Taken together, the discontent with the debate criteria and concerns about the lack of racial diversity on stage make the DNC an easy target for candidates eager to show off their progressive bona fides at the debate.

Will Biden stumble again?

Eight months into his presidential campaign, Biden has proven resilient. Most national polls still show him as the Democratic front-runner, and he’s widely perceived as the candidate with the best chance of beating President Trump in 2020.

But if his standing in the primary race has remained consistent, so too has his reputation for uneven debate performances.

He was panned for an unclear answer to a question about the legacy of slavery and reparations at the third debate in September, in which he said that families of color should “make sure you have the record player on at night” to improve educational opportunities for their children.

And at the debate in November, Biden described the need to “keep punching at” the issue of domestic violence — a choice of words that raised eyebrows among many viewers.

His consistent front-runner status makes him a clear target for his rivals, who are eager to leapfrog him in the polls before voting begins in Iowa in February. And the debate presents Biden with an opportunity to allay lingering concerns about his ability to confront Trump face-to-face in a general election.

Will Sanders be a target?

Like Biden, Sanders’s support has proven durable. While candidates like Warren and Buttigieg have experienced a series of rises and falls throughout their campaigns, Sanders has shown that he commands the support of a fiercely loyal base that has kept him near the top of the polls. 

He’s surged in recent weeks, eclipsing Warren and gaining ground on Biden in some national polls. That momentum is particularly valuable given that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are less than two months away.

But the recent traction also puts Sanders at risk.

Moderates like Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar could use Thursday’s debate to sharpen their attacks on Sanders, whom they have already tried to cast as out of step with the broader American electorate.

Meanwhile, Warren, who represents Sanders’s toughest rival in the progressive lane, could seize on the debate to draw contrasts between the two. Both have so far played nice with one another, opting to avoid direct attacks. But polls suggest they’re battling for the support of the Democratic Party’s most liberal voters and may be heading for a more direct confrontation.

How do the candidates navigate the USMCA?

The presidential candidates have mostly kept quiet about the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a bipartisan compromise on the trade deal last week, begging the question: Will Thursday’s debate break that silence?

Navigating the politics surrounding the USMCA may be tricky for the candidates. 

On one hand, praising the deal too effusively could be seen as giving credit to Trump, who made renegotiating the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a central promise of his 2016 campaign. On the other hand, the candidates could risk running afoul of Pelosi, who has dubbed the agreement a “victory for America’s workers,” by criticizing the deal.

Of particular note will be how or whether Biden addresses the USMCA. The former vice president was a strong proponent of NAFTA during its passage in the 1990s. But a growing chorus of voices within the Democratic Party has emerged in recent years to condemn the trade deal as bad for U.S. workers.

That camp includes the likes of Sanders and Warren, who have said that any renegotiated trade deal should include stronger labor and environmental protections. The USMCA compromise reached by House Democrats and the Trump administration includes some of those provisions.

All told, the USMCA could be a potentially volatile subject in Thursday’s debate — and one that could force the candidates to choose their words carefully. 

Tags 2020 Democratic debates 2020 Democratic presidential candidates 2020 presidential campaign Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Cory Booker DNC Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Pete Buttigieg Tom Steyer USMCA

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