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The Memo: 2020 Democrats enter crucial stretch

The Memo: 2020 Democrats enter crucial stretch

Tuesday will mark exactly five months until the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the Democratic nominating process for president.

It’s a milestone that also signals the campaign becoming more competitive.

Ten candidates are slated to debate in Houston on Sept. 12, the first time all the leading contenders will be on the same stage together.

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That means the “air war” will soon begin in earnest. The race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE, and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisIt's past time we elect a Black woman governor Manchin rebuffs progressive push for infrastructure guarantee It's time for domestic workers to have rights MORE (D-Calif.) have already run TV ads in Iowa. Other contenders are expected to follow suit shortly.

More broadly, Democratic voters across the country are likely to tune in with ever-greater focus as the field is winnowed down and the pace of campaigning picks up.

“The field is about where I would have expected it to be. It has sifted itself out,” said Karen Finney, who served as senior spokeswoman for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race Hillary Clinton: Casting doubt on 2020 election is 'doing Putin's work' Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE’s 2016 campaign but is unaffiliated with any candidate this cycle. 

“Voters are starting to have their say about whose ideas they are being intrigued by, who they are compelled by, at this moment,” Finney added.

The basic contours of the race have become clear. Biden leads virtually every poll, albeit by wildly divergent margins.

Explanations of his lead are equally divergent. 

Skeptics contend that his strong numbers are mostly linked to name recognition and the degree to which he is associated in the public’s mind with former President Obama.

But his backers insist the affection for him is real and deep. They say that his ideological moderation has a greater appeal to Democratic voters writ large than to the vocal but more limited universe of social media users.

And they argue that he is the best candidate to beat President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE — the objective most Democrats care about above all else.

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“The debate in this race is not about 'Medicare for All,' a green plan or college loans. It’s about who can beat Trump,” said Dick Harpootlian, a state senator and longtime Democratic power broker in South Carolina who is backing Biden. Harpootlian held a fundraiser that Biden attended in May.

“Who is going to be able to go toe-to-toe with Trump, go back and forth with him on the serious issues? There is only one person who can do that in this field, and that’s Joe Biden,” Harpootlian added. 

But others cast doubt on that claim.

They point to Biden’s weak performance in the first debate, when he came under fire from Harris; to his penchant for verbal gaffes, which has recently included reports that he delivered factually incorrect versions of a story about a meeting with a member of the military in Afghanistan; and to his comfort within a political establishment from which many voters appear alienated.

Then there are questions about Biden’s age. He is 76, and — though the issue is an inherently sensitive one — there are concerns that he may not be as sharp as he once was.

"There is a lot of concern among activists that he is too old and he can’t open his mouth without someone accusing him of a gaffe," said David Yepsen, a veteran Iowa-based journalist who has covered every presidential race in the state across four decades. "No one is actually covering Biden — it’s a 'gaffe watch.' And I think that takes a toll on him.”

Biden has an important advantage, however. His two most serious rivals, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democratic patience runs out on bipartisan talks NYC progressives anxiously watch Maya Wiley's ascent MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders opposes Biden Interior nominee in procedural vote Briahna Joy Gray on how Sanders changed the healthcare conversation Sanders 'delighted' DeSantis asked White House to import Canadian prescription drugs MORE (I-Vt.), are running at roughly the same level in the polls, effectively splitting the left-wing vote within the party.

Biden has no comparable problem. Other candidates, including Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHigh-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Buttigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm MORE (D), have an appeal to centrists, but they are a long way behind the former vice president. 

Warren has received a lot of media attention as she has risen steadily in the polls. She has been effective in debates and on the stump, and she is showing signs of real momentum. At least twice recently, her rallies have drawn five-figure crowds: 15,000 in Seattle and 12,000 in St. Paul, Minn.

Some within the party also contend that she may have broader appeal than Sanders.

“For as much as people talk about how her ideas are so far to the left, she has a way of explaining them that somehow doesn’t sound as lefty as when Bernie talks about them,” said Finney.

Even so, Sanders retains a base of fervent fans that shows little sign of leaving him. In the RealClearPolitics national polling average, the level of support for him and for Warren is strikingly similar: 17.1 percent for Sanders to 16.5 percent for Warren as of Friday evening.

Other candidates, including Harris and Buttigieg, are looking for a pathway into more serious contention. Each one is polling at respectable levels, but neither is challenging for the lead nor showing much serious sign of momentum. 

Their hope may be that one of the candidates ahead of them, notably Biden, has a serious stumble. 

But they might also hope that they will somehow catch fire as voters pay more attention and as some Democrats come off the “undecided” sidelines. 

In a recent national poll from Emerson College, fully half the Democrats polled said they could yet change their minds and vote for someone other than their current choice. 

The race is fluid. It’s all to play for in the fall.

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