How coronavirus is changing Sunday's debate

The Democratic presidential candidates and the national party have dramatically altered their approach to the final debate on Sunday to reflect new fears around the coronavirus and the dynamics of a race that has seen former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE open up a substantial lead over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE (I-Vt.).

The coronavirus that is at the top of everyone’s minds, particularly with two candidates who are in their late 70s, has provoked the Democratic National Committee to take drastic steps to reduce risks to the campaigns and the media outlets involved.

The debate has been moved from a theater in Phoenix, Arizona to a studio in Washington, D.C., to cut down on travel for the campaigns and the news media. There will be no live audience at the debate, as part of a broader societal effort to cut down on large gatherings where the virus is more likely to spread.

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Univision anchor Jorge Ramos has pulled out as one of the debate moderators, saying he is healthy at the moment but had been in contact with someone who was exposed to the virus.

Some Democrats have been whispering about canceling the debate entirely.

Even before the panic over the virus set in, Biden allies like Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had declared the race all but over and warned that the debate could only do harm to Biden, the party’s likely nominee.

But many Democrats are glad to see it moving forward, believing Sanders has earned his one-on-one with Biden. Democrats say the steps the national party and the candidates are taking are adequate, and they believe that holding the debate could be an inspirational event for the country and the party at a very difficult time.

“It’s important to show that democracy continues even in our darkest hours,” said Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which has been advising down-ballot campaigns on how to handle the coronavirus crisis.

“We held elections in the middle of the Civil War. One of our strengths is showing how we carry on in challenging times, and doing this in ways that minimize risks to the public and to the campaigns is the right thing to do. Everyone in the country is sacrificing for the greater good right now, and this can be a small step in joining that effort.”

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Biden and Sanders have effectively been pulled off of the campaign trail, canceling rallies and giving speeches remotely. Volunteers have stopped knocking on doors or assembling at campaign offices.

The cumulative effect has been to take some of the edge off the primary race, and the debate will be notable for having been drained of some of its drama.

Only two weeks ago, the prospect of a Sanders versus Biden one-on-one debate with the nomination hanging in the balance would have been viewed as a pivotal, potentially history-altering event.

But the Democratic Party has rallied in swift fashion behind Biden’s campaign, viewing him as having the best shot at defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE in November.

After winning 10 of the 14 states on Super Tuesday, Biden finished first in five of the six contests this week, including a big victory in Michigan, where Sanders had hunkered down to salvage his campaign.

Biden leads Sanders by about 150 delegates at the moment, and he could flip that into a near insurmountable lead on Tuesday with a big victory in Florida, where polls show him ahead by between 36 and 55 points.

In a speech this week, Sanders said that his top priority is defeating Trump in November and that he wouldn’t do anything to harm the party’s nominee.

The Vermont senator instead signaled that he’d use his political capital to press Biden to embrace the issues that have powered the rise of the progressive left in Democratic politics, such as "Medicare for All," the Green New Deal, and policies aimed at addressing income inequality.

But the Biden campaign is taking nothing for granted and is preparing as if it will be Sanders’s last stand.

For starters, it'll be the first time that Biden faces off directly with Sanders, who many see as a good debater. Biden has proven to be uneven in his debate performances and some worry that the event could set him back at a time when he's on the doorstep of winning the Democratic nomination.

Biden allies say, the former vice president has to "survive" first and foremost, as one longtime ally put it. 

"I just want to get through Sunday without a slip up," the ally said. 

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At the same time, the ally added that Biden needs to "successfully continue to layout his agenda and why it's better than Bernie's." 

The coronavirus adds another kink to Biden's plans. 

"In some ways it's helpful," said another ally who is in touch with the Biden campaign. "It's slowed down the campaign a lot. It allows them to get organized before going into the general election. It gives them time to make tweaks to the roster as we've seen."

On the flip side, the ally said, the debate – in Washington, with no audience – "takes away a bit of the VP's momentum." 

"It's the same thing as a football game without a cheering section. Even if you're making good points, there's no one to celebrate them. It's awkward for everyone involved." 

With the rise of the coronavirus, health care could take center stage at the forum, and this is where Sanders’s allies hope he will leave the biggest mark.

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Biden said recently he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it was passed by Congress, which has angered Sanders’s allies.

“Though no one would want this, the pandemic sets as a perfect metaphor for Bernie, not just for a conversation about Medicare for All, but generally that the current political system is in dire need of radical transformation and can’t respond to regular people's needs, something millions of people hunkering down in their homes in fear will be much more open to hearing,” said Jonathan Tasini a progressive strategist who backs Sanders.

Sanders’s allies say that if Biden hopes to win over progressives, he has to show a willingness to consider the merits of some of the policy proposals that are important to the left. They expect Sanders to pressure Biden here, but not attack.

“Sanders should hammer home people can’t afford to get tested and we don’t have paid sick leave for regular people but, presto, $1.5 trillion materializes to make Wall Street happy,” Tasini said, referring to the Federal Reserve's liquidity injection announced this week.

“And he will be able to, then, say, that Joe is my friend but we simply disagree about the scope of change needed," he added. "Biden will likely try to make this all about Trump’s malfeasance but that will only go so far if he’s trying to expand his base, especially with younger people.”