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 MoultonPardoning war crimes dishonors the military The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing We still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service 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 BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Bloomberg, Patrick take different approaches after late entries into primary race Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinger Neil Young says that America's presidents haven't done enough address climate change New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau 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 BookerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Overnight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group 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 ButtigiegNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne 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 SwalwellNew witness claims firsthand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes Pelosi: Trump tweets on Yovanovitch show his 'insecurity as an imposter' Overnight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKrystal Ball dismisses Rahm Emanuel's 'Medicare for All' criticism as a 'corporatist mantra' Trump says remark about Colorado border wall was made 'kiddingly' Colorado governor mocks Trump for saying he's building wall there MORE (D), Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeO'Rourke ends presidential bid Sunrise Movement organizer: Sanders, Warren boast strongest climate change plans Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate 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 TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election 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.