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 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, 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.) 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 ClintonSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Hillary Clinton: Voter suppression has led to 'crisis in democracy' in the US 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 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 — 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 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.) and 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.), 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 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), 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.