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 MoultonThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Debruyne Says Global Response Platform Needed; Navarro Saw It Coming Asian American lawmaker warns of fear of racism over coronavirus stigma Pressley experiencing flu-like symptoms, being tested for COVID-19 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 BidenLifting our voices — and votes Longtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick Biden will help close out Texas Democrats' virtual convention: report MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenLongtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US virus deaths exceed 100,000; Pelosi pulls FISA bill Warren's VP bid faces obstacle: Her state's Republican governor MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden will help close out Texas Democrats' virtual convention: report Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Gabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisLongtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick Warren's VP bid faces obstacle: Her state's Republican governor Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 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 BookerSenate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Senators ask DeVos to adjust FAFSA form due to the coronavirus pandemic Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt 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 SwalwellGrenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump visits a ventilator plant in a battleground state Swalwell launching voter registration push MORE (D-Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill MORE (D), Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeGreen group proposes nearly T infrastructure and clean energy stimulus plan Washington state bishops respond to Trump's push to reopen churches: 'We will wait' Trump takes pandemic fight to Michigan 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 marks 'very sad milestone' of 100K coronavirus deaths DOJ: George Floyd death investigation a 'top priority' Lifting our voices — and votes 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.