Third Democratic debate: Biden-Warren and what else to watch

  • Signage is erected Wednesday for the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston.

    Signage is erected Wednesday for the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston. Associated Press

Updated 9/12/2019 9:58 AM

Joe Biden will be tested by some of his strongest challengers, eager to knock the former vice president from his so-far durable perch atop the rest of the field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is hoping to continue her steady rise, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wants to keep pushing a relentlessly consistent message - and the rest of the field is working to prevent the race from becoming a three-person contest.

The 10 leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will take the stage at 8 p.m. Eastern in Houston for a debate airing on ABC and Univision. In some ways it will be clarifying: For the first time, there will be only one night of debating and all the major candidates will be on the same stage.


In other ways, it will still be a political free-for-all: There are still 10 candidates. On one stage. For three hours.

- What to watch

The most compelling story line centers on Biden and Warren, who have yet to face off against each other.

Warren so far has largely cocooned herself from other rivals. She has generally avoided criticizing other candidates, and they have likewise rarely gone after her. During the debate in August, she and Sanders forged a liberal alliance on the stage, going on a bit of a tag-team defense against their more moderate challengers.

That could change Thursday night.

Simmering tensions between Biden and Warren could burst into the open. He has in recent days started touting his record as one that liberals should be proud of, and he and his campaign advisers have talked about the need to not only have plans but also the ability to execute them - an implicit knock at Warren's reputation as the candidate with the most plans.

Warren has long resented Biden's role in passing the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which she argued was an affront to average consumers. She also views Biden as more of an incrementalist who doesn't support the kind of far-reaching change that she believes is needed - a line that Biden has been preparing to counter.

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His campaign points out that he has released 20 years of tax returns, more than any other candidate; Warren has released 10 years' worth.

Biden is also preparing to defend the legacy of President Barack Obama, who came under deep scrutiny during the previous debate.

Warren has generally avoided any direct contrasts with Biden.

"So, for me, this is a big chance to be able to talk about what's broken in this country, how we fix it and how I'm building a grass-roots movement to get that done," she told reporters in Austin on Tuesday night.

When asked if she was going to change her strategy in the debate, she said, "I see this as a chance to talk about why I'm in the race. And I assume that's what all the other Democrats are going to do, too."

Also: Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is in a similar spot as before the first debate: She continues to poll amid the second tier of candidates, in need of a fundraising boost and a clearer rationale. Her latest fundraising appeals have talked about a "summer slump," and the campaign is eager to show that she deserves to be in the top of the field.


Biden may face challenges from her and others; Harris brought us the most viral debate moment so far, when she challenged Biden on his record opposing mandated busing as a way to integrate schools. In the next debate, Biden's record on criminal justice was scrutinized by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. As Biden advisers point out, though, polling has indicated that those attacks have not significantly dinged his support among African American voters.

The rest of the field is also hoping for an opening. For those who like Biden's pragmatism, there could room for a candidate such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. And there could be another opportunity with those wanting to usher in a new generation - the three top contenders are all in their 70s - for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is 37.

Andrew Yang has crowdsurfed and danced. He seems to be the candidate having the most fun on the campaign trail. He will be the only candidate on the stage who has never held an elected office, but he has struggled to convert his breezy casual style onto a nationally televised debate.

While much of the attention has focused on Warren vs. Biden, it is Sanders, who will be standing on the other side of Biden, who could also play a major factor. Sanders shared the stage with Biden in the first debate, but largely avoided any fierce attacks, despite discussions among his advisers that he should take an aggressive tone. He and Biden vigorously disagree on health care, the type of initiatives needed to combat climate change, and whether to raise money from wealthy donors.

And while Sanders and Warren have been allies, a clash between them is likely at some point, with both fighting to become the liberal alternative to Biden.

The debate also puts a focus on Texas, a state that has long been on the minds of Democrats who hope that the state's demographic shifts will finally work in their favor. Former congressman Beto O'Rourke in particular may bring up his appeal in the state, where he nearly defeated Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year. But the operative word there is "nearly."

O'Rourke was among those who broke into Spanish during earlier debates, and Wednesday he became the first candidate to launch an all-Spanish Twitter feed. He has also tried to refocus his campaign over the past several week and has dropped salty language back into his campaign speeches. (The debate is not taking place under a seven-second delay, and the Democratic National Committee has warned candidates to avoid using foul language.)

Another person looking for an opening in his home state? Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet official and former mayor of San Antonio.

The issues

Since the last debate, the country has seen multiple mass shootings, elevating the debate over gun control. New Census results showing a drop in the number of Americans with health insurance are bound to reinvigorate an already lively intraparty fight over health care.

A hurricane that took aim at the East Coast (but did not make it to Alabama) has kept alive the debate among Democrats over climate change. And even though the faceoff Thursday night comes after a seven-hour climate-focused town hall on CNN last week, the candidates probably have more to say.

Biden's campaign is hoping that the discussion will turn toward foreign policy, which he views as a strength. That could have its limits, however: Last week he misstated his position on the Iraq War, which he did not oppose from the outset, and that could lead to a debate with Sanders, who did.

To qualify, candidates needed to have at least 130,000 individual donors and receive at least 2 percent support in at least four state or national polls. Three candidates were on the cusp - Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, author Marianne Williamson and billionaire Tom Steyer - but seven candidates fell well short.

The candidates who met none of the requirements needed to get onto the stage were Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio; former congressman John Delaney of Maryland; Miramar, Floeus, Mayor Wayne Messam; Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; and former congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania.

The qualifications for the debate in October are the same, and more candidates may qualify. Steyer seems to have reached the polling to qualify. Gabbard and Williamson still need additional polls to carry them past the threshold.

The DNC has not yet announced a debate partner or a location for the fourth debate, but it will be held Oct. 15 and, if necessary, Oct. 16, somewhere in Ohio.

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