The Memo: Democratic field boils down to four-horse race

The quest for the Democratic presidential nomination is becoming a four-horse race.

Marginal candidates at the bottom of the large field have begun to drop out — Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Wall Street ends volatile month in major test for Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Hurricane headed for Florida changes Trump's travel plans MORE (D-Mass.) became the latest to do so on Friday — and a deadline is looming this week to qualify for the third round of debates in Houston in September.

Meanwhile, at the head of the pack, only a major surprise would deliver the nomination to anyone outside the top quartet: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE (D-Calif.).

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Those four lead the polls and suck up media attention. They also offer Democratic voters a potential standard-bearer from the left (Warren or Sanders), the center (Biden) or somewhere in between (Harris). And, of course, either Warren or Harris could become the first female president.

Put it all together and it is difficult to see an opening for other contenders to make a serious run at the nomination.

Candidates who launched with high hopes, notably Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOvernight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks Poll: 33 percent of voters undecided on who won third Democratic debate Jon Bon Jovi: Booker would 'do an amazing job' as president MORE (D-N.J.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), have put in months of campaign-trail toil without seriously threatening to crack the top tier.

The one surprise has been the strength of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegCalifornia poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Buttigieg unveils disaster response plan focused on communities Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE (D), who bested everyone in fundraising during the second quarter.

But Buttigieg has not developed the kind of momentum that suggests he could go all the way. He has shown little evidence he can expand his support beyond upscale whites, and concerns persist that voters would see him as just too young, at 37, to be commander in chief.

In addition to Moulton, Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLeft off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa Yang says he would not run as a third-party candidate The Hill's Morning Report - Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas, creeps along Florida coast MORE (D), Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate Left off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa MORE (D) and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel (D) have all dropped out well in advance of the first contests. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 3.

Moulton sees the field of real contenders as comprising just three people.

“I think it’s evident that this is now a three-way race between Biden, Warren and Sanders, and really it’s about how far left the party should go,” he told The New York Times as he announced his withdrawal.

Biden retains a sizable lead in national polls, but the big question is whether that support will endure as Democrats focus more sharply on the campaign in the months between now and the Iowa caucuses.

In two televised debates so far, Biden performed weakly in the first and adequately in the second.

The former vice president has a lifelong propensity for gaffes, but missteps now spark questions about his age and his robustness to compete against Trump.

Most recently, Biden, 76, referred to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy as having taken place in the 1970s. King and Kennedy were killed in 1968. On Saturday, Biden mistakenly referred to the town in which he was campaigning — Keene, N.H. — as being in Vermont.

Democratic insiders also note that Biden will face new scrutiny once all his main challengers are onstage with him in the debates. Biden has yet to appear on the same stage as Warren, seen by many Democrats as his strongest challenger.

Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several past presidential campaigns but is not affiliated with any candidate this cycle, said that future debates “are going to be very critical for Biden.”

But he added: “It’s also going to be about the white-hot heat of the process in December, January, February. It is going to be the enormous intensity of that, and the focus that Biden is going to be under. Every comment is going to be scrutinized.”

Other Democrats share Longabaugh’s skepticism.

Biden “would be the most flawed Democrat to win a contested primary like this in a long time,” said strategist Joel Payne.

But Biden and his allies believe his argument that he is the best candidate to take on Trump will win the day.

His first TV ad in Iowa asserts that “we have to beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE, and all the polls agree Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.”

His competitors argue that electability alone is not enough.

"Democrats shouldn't modulate our values or try to triangulate our policy positions based upon what some pundits say is electability,” Booker told CNN last week.

The most recent major national poll from The Economist and YouGov showed an extremely close contest, with Biden at 22 percent support, only just shading Sanders (19 percent) and Warren (18 percent).

But, underlining the uncertainty that still hangs over the contest, a CNN-SSRS poll just days earlier found Biden 14 points clear of the same two candidates, with Biden at 29 percent, followed by Sanders's 15 percent and Warren's 14 percent.

In any event, the battle between Sanders and Warren — each one fighting to be the standard-bearer of the left — will be vital to the race’s outcome. There is a distinct possibility that they might split the progressive vote, which would ease the path for Biden, the clear choice among more centrist Democrats.

Warren has appeared to gain momentum recently and has surpassed Sanders in several polls. But Sanders retains a committed base of support, and his allies insist his chances are being underestimated.

Harris, meanwhile, must somehow thread a path through the three leading candidates. The California senator's best chance may come if Biden stumbles badly. Such a scenario would sharpen her appeal to both the center-left and more liberal factions of the party.

Still, her boost in the polls after the first debate has faded, and questions about her core beliefs, on everything from criminal justice to health care, persist.

The fight will only get fiercer from here.

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