WASHINGTON - A crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates will square off in a second round of debates Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the U.S., with 20 contenders looking for a breakout moment to make the case that they are the party's best of hope of defeating President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
The two debates with 10 candidates each are occurring six months ahead of the Democratic party's first presidential nominating contests early next year. But the debates on a theater stage in Detroit, Michigan, the heart of the country's auto industry, and nationally televised by CNN could prove pivotal in both winnowing the field, forcing the weakest challengers out of the race before the next debate in mid-September, and in solidifying the list of front-runners.
Just as before the first round of debates a month ago, national polls show former Vice President Joe Biden as the leading choice among Democratic voters. Some party stalwarts say he is the more moderate, center-left, politically safe choice to take on the unpredictable Trump, whose populist base of conservative voters remains strong. A new Quinnipiac University national poll shows Biden leading the pack with 34% of Democrats and independents leaning Democratic, followed by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts with 15%, Kamala Harris of California with 12% and Bernie Sanders of Vermont with 11%.
But there are questions about Biden's standing, whether at 76 he is too old to lead the country, even though Trump is 73, and whether Democratic voters want a candidate with more progressive views than Biden on health care, prevention of crime, migrant immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border and other issues. Some analysts think Biden's top standing in national polls is at least partly a reflection of name recognition, from his four decades on the U.S. national scene as a senator, two unsuccessful runs for the presidency and two terms as vice president under former President Barack Obama.
Biden looked like anything but the front-runner in the first debate, a rusty presence, faltering and caught by surprise questioning from Harris. She attacked his opposition three decades ago to forced busing of school children to racially desegregate public schools. Harris said that she, as a black woman and the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, benefited from such a busing program to attend a better school growing up in California.
Biden struggled to defend himself, even at one point abruptly cutting himself off in responding to her, saying, "My time is up."
Biden, who on Wednesday again will be on the debate stage with Harris, is promising a more robust performance, saying, "I'm not going to be as polite this time."
On the same stage, Biden is also likely to face a challenge from Sen. Cory Booker, an African-American former mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
Booker has assailed Biden's support 25 years ago for get-tough-on-crime legislation that led to the disproportionate imprisonment of black defendants. Biden recently offered a new criminal justice plan, reversing key provisions of the 1994 measure, such as ending the stricter sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Booker scoffed that Biden was hardly the best candidate to lay out a new criminal justice plan and has called for slashing mandatory minimum sentences.
Despite Biden's first debate stumbles, the ranks of the top Democratic candidates changed little in national surveys.
Biden remains ahead of three challengers, all U.S. senators: Sanders, a democratic socialist lawmaker from the northeastern state of Vermont; Warren, a former Harvard law professor from neighboring Massachusetts, and Harris, once the California attorney general. Booker has edged up a bit in the polling, while South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has slipped a notch, with the remaining candidates far down the ranks and struggling to gain a foothold.
Biden claims he has the best chance of making the Republican Trump the country's first single-term president in nearly three decades, denying him a second four years in the White House.
National surveys, 15 months ahead of the Nov. 3, 2020, election, consistently show him winning a hypothetical match-up over Trump, whose voter approval ratings remain mired in the mid-40% range. Sanders often defeats Trump as well, although not by Biden's margin, while surveys show the other top Democrats potentially locked in tight, either-or outcomes with Trump.
Tuesday night's debate includes both Warren and Sanders, friends of long standing, who are perhaps the two Democratic candidates with the most liberal views on a range of issues and vying for the support of many of the same voters in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Notably, both have called for a sweeping end to the country's current health care insurance system centered on private company insurance plans offered to 150 million workers through their employers.
While differing on the details, Sanders, Warren and Harris and some other Democrats all want to install a government-run national health care insurance program. Biden has taken a more incremental approach to health care changes, calling for improvements to the current national program adopted in 2010 known as Obamacare, which has made health care insurance available for millions of Americans but still left millions of others to fend for themselves to pay their medical bills. Trump supports an ongoing lawsuit aimed at declaring Obamacare unconstitutional, but has offered no replacement plan.
To illustrate the high cost of drugs in the U.S., Sanders left Detroit on Sunday to drive a short distance into Canada with 13 diabetics, all looking to buy insulin more cheaply than they can purchase it in the U.S. It costs $30 a vial in Canada, but 10 times that in the U.S.
The other candidates in the Tuesday debate are Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, self-help guru Marianne Williamson and Buttigieg.
Aside from Biden, Harris and Booker, the Wednesday debate stage also includes former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Five other Democratic candidates did not qualify for the debates, but the 20 who did had to have received campaign donations from at least 65,000 individuals and hit a 1% threshold in at least three separate polls.
It gets tougher to appear on the stage at the third debate six weeks from now. To qualify then, candidates must have 130,000 campaign contributors and at least 2 percent support in four polls.
Only seven of this week's 20 debaters have already met the third debate criteria: Biden, Harris, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Booker and O'Rourke.