The Memo: 2020 Democrats jockey for position as reckoning looms

The Memo: 2020 Democrats jockey for position as reckoning looms

Democratic presidential candidates are ramping up their media appearances, pumping out policy proposals and sharpening attacks on their rivals as two critical moments loom.

The first debates of this election cycle will take place on June 26 and 27 in Miami. And the end of the month will bring the second quarter of fundraising to a close, with totals to be released days afterward.

Together, those two tests will give the clearest picture yet of who is a serious candidate and who will be an also-ran.

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Lower-ranking candidates are desperate to vault upwards, while those already perceived to be among the major contenders are looking for an extra shot of momentum.

“At this point in the campaign, there are only two ways you can quantify the status in the race,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic ad-maker and strategist. “One is the polls and the other is how much money you’ve got.”

The shifting tone of the campaign is one testament to the higher stakes for which everyone is now playing. 

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Mass.) hit front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Biden campaign sells 'I paid more income taxes than Trump' stickers Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose MORE for his support of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion services.

Asked by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes during a town hall event whether the former vice president was wrong, Warren replied unambiguously.

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“Yes,” she said, adding that under various measures aimed at restricting access to abortion, “women of means will still have access to abortions. Who won’t, will be poor women, will be working women, will be women who can’t afford to take off three days from work, will be very young women, will be women who’ve been raped, will be women who have been molested by someone in their own family.”

"We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable,” Warren added.

A number of other candidates, including Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE (I-Vt.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), have also underlined their differences with Biden on the issue. New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioNYC principals call on state to take control of city's schools, vote 'no confidence' in de Blasio OVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities MORE (D) said during a Fox News interview Thursday that he “didn’t know” how Biden expected to be the Democratic nominee “if he’s not going to stand on the side of American women.”

Biden reversed his position later on Thursday, a significant U-turn in his campaign.

Meanwhile, candidates have been introducing policy proposals that can bring them attention right now and perhaps have enough longevity to provide talking points for the debate.

In recent days, Biden and Warren have both offered plans on climate change, O’Rourke has unveiled a proposal aimed at protecting voting rights, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker says he will ask Amy Coney Barrett if she will recuse herself from presidential election-related cases Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point MORE (D-N.J.) has pushed a plan to use tax credits to cap rent at 30 percent of a resident’s income, and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Suburban moms are going to decide the 2020 election MORE (D-N.Y.) has called for the federal legalization of marijuana.

Booker and, particularly, Gillibrand have struggled to gain traction in the race so far.

While headline-grabbing policy proposals might help them to some degree, no one doubts that the first debates will be the biggest opportunity for them, and candidates who face similar predicaments, to create a buzz.

But the sheer size of the Democratic field will bring challenges too. There are currently 24 candidates looking to challenge President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE, and 20 will be on the debate stages in Miami — 10 on each night. 

“Given the size of the field and the size of the debate stage, you are going to have a situation where, as far as I can figure out, each candidate is going to get maybe six or seven minutes to talk,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist who has worked on many past presidential campaigns. “What is going to matter — and what will matter even more than in conventional  one-on-one debates — is who is going to win the moments.” 

Asked whether the parcelling out of speaking time among so many candidates could help a front-runner such as Biden, Shrum expressed ambivalence.

“It could be an advantage to someone like Biden, but it could also be an advantage to someone who comes in loaded for bear and stands out,” Shrum said. “Think of the Republican debates in 2016. It was the fact that Trump was so distinctive and so memorable — even if you didn’t like what he was saying — that really enabled him to stand out.” 

No one doubts that the lower-ranking candidates will come with soundbites at the ready, hoping to make an impact.

“It sets up an incentive for candidates to get some attention by throwing out something that will get the media’s attention,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “Definitely, they are all going to have arrows in their quiver." 

If any of those arrows find their mark, it will also provide a last chance to juice fundraising before June 30 brings the second quarter to a close. 

Virtually no one expects the full field to make it to the first contests, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. 

That means for some the debates could be a political life-or-death moment. For top-tier candidates, they provide the opportunity to bolster strength, or to come unstuck.

“It’s one of the basic rules of politics,” said Carrick, “Candidates who are back in the pack look on debates as terrific opportunities. And people at the front look at debates as an opportunity just not to make a mistake.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.