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 MoultonTrump set to confront his impeachment foes Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa The DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo 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 BidenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Push for national popular vote movement gets boost from conservatives MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. House passes historic legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime 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 BookerDemocrats' Obama-to-Sanders shift on charter schooling This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter 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 ButtigiegBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina 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 SwalwellRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill California lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Chris Wallace: 'Just insane' Swalwell is talking impeaching Trump again MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Trump seeks to boost vulnerable GOP senator with Colorado rally Nonpartisan election forecaster moves Colorado Senate race to 'leans Democratic' MORE (D), Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: New Interior rule would limit scientific studies agency can consider | Panel battles over tree-planting bill | Trump to resume coal leases on public lands Andrew Yang ends presidential bid Bloomberg, Steyer focus on climate change in effort to stand out 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 TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes 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.