Democratic debate Night 2: Biden’s bull’s-eye, Sanders’ attitude and other things to watch for

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders will share center stage Thursday for the second night of the Democratic Party’s first 2020 presidential primary debate, held in Miami.
(Chris Keller / Los Angeles Times)

After Wednesday’s largely congenial presidential debate in Miami, another set of White House hopefuls go at it Thursday night.

Same stage, same format, same jam-packed gathering of 10 Democratic contestants. As events have it — actually, it was determined by a blind drawing — most of the top-tier candidates will be squaring off in the second round.

Center stage belongs to former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are running first and second in most polls. Flanking them will be South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris, both first-time presidential debaters.


In the farther reaches — left to right, as you face the stage — will be self-help impresario Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell from the East Bay Area suburbs.

To watch Thursday’s two-hour session, tune in at 6 p.m. Pacific on NBC, MSNBC or Telemundo. Here are five things to look for:

How does Biden handle the bull’s-eye on his back?

As the Democratic front-runner and possessor of a target-rich, decades-long record in public office, Biden will be the evening’s prime target. Up to now, he’s barely acknowledged his opponents, a timeworn strategy for the candidate leading the pack. That won’t be an option Thursday night.

Plenty of rivals have an incentive to attack — er, compare and contrast themselves with — Biden. Some candidates who are young enough to be one of his grandchildren have sought to make a generational case against the 76-year-old.

The more progressive candidates are eager to paint the former vice president as a throwback whose comparatively centrist philosophy and can’t-we-get-along attitude are out of step with the leftward leanings and pugilistic mindset of party activists.

How will Biden respond? By continuing to float above the fray? Or will his temper — or some needling upstart — get the better of him?


Will Sanders be a target or a tormentor?

The Vermont independent is among those who may pile on Biden, though the two are reputed to have a friendly relationship going back to their membership in the rarefied Club of 100 (also known as the United States Senate).

But Sanders also could come under fire. He and Hickenlooper have already clashed over the democratic socialist philosophy that Sanders embraces and Colorado’s former governor sees as a surefire way to lose to President Trump in November 2020.

Part of Sanders’ appeal, at least to fans, is his cranky-pants persona. For others, not so much. How will he respond?

This is not your father’s Democratic Party: Debate shows how leftward it has moved »

How prosecutorial will Harris get?

Democrats have been thrilled watching the former district attorney and California attorney general give Republicans the third degree. One of the main arguments for her candidacy is the notion of standing toe-to-toe with Trump and grilling him on the debate stage.

But how will it play when she’s applying her forensic skills to fellow Democrats — one of whom could eventually be the party’s presidential or vice-presidential standard-bearer?


Are Democrats tuning in for an episode of “Family Feud” or something more “Kumbaya”?

How will Buttigieg come across?

At 37, he is less than half the age of Biden and the 77-year-old Sanders. (But who’s counting?) How will he come across standing alongside them — young and callow or like a vibrant Jack Kennedy type?

Also, will Buttigieg be held to account for the shooting of a black man by a white South Bend police officer? Will anyone on the stage criticize him for showing up rather than tending to matters back home?

Eight takeaways from Night 1 of the Democratic debate »

How much attention will Yang and Williamson receive?

Although neither stands much chance of winning the Democratic nomination, much less the White House, that’s not to say the two are uninteresting.

Yang’s proposal for a universal basic income — $1,000 a month for every American adult — is intriguing, even if it’s every bit as likely to pass Congress as a law that would give everyone a car wash and free pizza on Sundays.

Williamson has made a number of contradictory statements regarding mandatory vaccinations. Will she be pressed to explain her stance, the way a serious presidential contender would be?


Or will the two most unconventional candidates be treated like small children of the Victorian age, seen but not heard?