The Memo: Can other Democrats topple Biden, Warren at the debate?

The Memo: Can other Democrats topple Biden, Warren at the debate?
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The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is looking increasingly like a two-horse race — unless someone other than former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (D-Mass.) can have a big moment at Tuesday night’s debate in Westerville, Ohio.

Biden and Warren are locked in a tight battle in national opinion polls, and have opened up a sizable gap with the rest of the field.

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The third-place candidate in most polls, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (I-Vt.), is just now resuming campaigning after suffering a heart attack. Behind Sanders come candidates such as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Julián Castro jabs ICE: 'Delete your account' Pelosi endorses Christy Smith in bid to replace Katie Hill MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg MORE (D), who have both enjoyed moments in the spotlight but struggled to get long-term traction.

In order to break the Biden-Warren stranglehold, the 10 other contenders will have to inject themselves forcefully into Tuesday night’s proceedings. But such a gambit also carries risks.

The idea of attacking Biden is especially complicated because of the allegations that have been thrown at him and his son Hunter Biden by President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE. Trump is facing possible impeachment for soliciting an investigation of the Bidens from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call.

Democratic strategists say challengers need to tread carefully for fear of appearing to abet Trump.

“Is anyone going to attack Biden on Ukraine? If they do, then by definition they are basically taking Trump’s side,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.

Those dynamics are part of a broader problem for other candidates outside of the top two.

The easiest way to make an impression is to tangle with Biden or Warren. But doing so runs the risk of backfiring, especially in such a large field where voters can be put off by perceived negativity — as some candidates have already discovered.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro suffered a backlash after he appeared to target Biden’s age at last month’s debate in Houston.

Harris enjoyed a polling surge after she went after Biden’s history on racial issues, including school busing, in the first clashes in Miami in late June. But her momentum has vanished since then. She is currently drawing roughly 5 percent support in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

“The question is, if you need to draw a contrast, how do you do it in a way that benefits you and doesn’t hurt you? And it’s a challenging question,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

McMahon said such attacks can work better in a race where voters must choose between just two candidates.

“If it is a binary choice, every vote that your opponent doesn’t get is one you will get,” McMahon said. “When it’s a multicandidate field, yes, you might peel one vote off of Joe Biden. But there are 11 other candidates who are just as likely as you are to get that vote.”

Despite Trump’s attacks on him and some faltering performances in early debates, Biden continues to show strength in the polls. Warren, meanwhile, has grown her support consistently for months.

In a Quinnipiac University national poll released Monday, Warren led with 30 percent support among Democrats, edging Biden’s 27 percent.

Sanders was a long way behind with 11 percent. Buttigieg had 8 percent support, followed by Harris at 4 percent.

Sanders’s supporters point out that he topped fundraising totals in the third quarter, with a reported haul of $25.3 million. But there has been little sign in the polls that the veteran democratic socialist is expanding his base, and his recent heart attack deepens questions about his age. Sanders, 78, would be the oldest president ever elected.

“I think he should address [the heart attack] head-on because even if he doesn’t get a question about it, voters and viewers are going to think about it,” said strategist Basil Smikle. “It is something that is not inconsequential but it is not disqualifying.”

Smikle, like several of the Democratic strategists who spoke to The Hill, suggested that candidates who are competing with Biden on more centrist ground might have the most potential to grow.

“It’s possible that even if Vice President Biden and his son are not seen as having done anything improper, moderate voters might get to the point where they are worried that the negative talk around them might drag the ticket down,” Smikle said.

Another strategist, Julie Roginsky, made a similar point but focused on Biden’s performances on the campaign trail and in previous debates.

“Warren and Sanders have the liberal wing of the Democratic Party covered and there’s not much room for anybody else to cut into that. But I think there are people who were seriously looking at Joe Biden and who are questioning how fleet-footed he was in response to Trump’s attacks on him,” said Roginsky, who added that this created an “opportunity” for other candidates such as Harris.

Even though there are still more than three months to go before the Iowa caucuses, candidates outside the top two can’t risk fading into also-ran status.

That fact alone could ensure fireworks Tuesday night.

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