The impeachment investigation of President Trump has dramatically changed the campaign landscape for the Democratic presidential candidates who will gather Tuesday in Ohio for their fourth debate.
The uproar over Trump asking the president of Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden has drawn attention away from every other Democrat in the race. And the candidates’ attempts to stay focused on healthcare, immigration, guns and other issues have been largely drowned out by the impeachment media storm and raging controversy over Trump’s foreign policy.
That could change, at least briefly, at the CNN/New York Times debate Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio.
Here are seven things to watch:
Will Biden face pressure on Ukraine?
Trump and his allies have been hurling unsubstantiated allegations that Biden, when he was vice president, pushed Ukraine to fire a top prosecutor in an effort to protect his son Hunter Biden, who was serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
In a July phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens — shortly after suspending nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine for its fight against Russia-backed separatists.
Numerous Ukrainian officials have said there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim. A probe of the gas company had nothing to do with Hunter Biden, they said, and had gone dormant when the Obama administration pushed for the prosecutor’s ouster because of his failure to go after corruption.
Still, Biden has refused to say why he saw no conflict in his son’s paid position on the gas company board when the vice president was the Obama administration’s point man for fighting corruption in Ukraine.
With Democrats nearly united in the drive to impeach Trump, it would be delicate for one of Biden’s rivals to raise the topic of whether his son’s Ukraine work posed at least the appearance of a conflict. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has suggested that kind of attack would serve as a gift to Trump.
But debate moderators might not let Biden easily deflect questions about his son the way he has so far — by going on the attack against Trump for inviting foreign interference in the 2020 election.
Hunter Biden agreed Sunday not to work for any foreign-owned companies if his father is elected president.
How will the candidates stack up on foreign affairs?
The chaos and violence that followed Trump’s abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria last week, apparently at the bidding of Turkey’s president, have pushed foreign affairs to the top of the campaign agenda.
Trump’s Ukraine scandal and the giant Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government could further test the candidates’ dexterity with complex challenges overseas, an area little explored in previous debates.
For Biden, it’s a chance to show the expertise he developed over eight years as vice president and 36 years as a U.S. senator, including two as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The current and former members of Congress onstage have varying degrees of experience in foreign policy. But for those with little or none — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer and New York businessman Andrew Yang — questions about troubles abroad will carry an especially high risk if they’re unprepared to respond.
How will those in the back of the pack try to vault ahead?
Most of the 12 candidates onstage are stuck below 3% in the polls, so they’re in danger of not qualifying for the party’s increasingly stringent criteria for inclusion in future debates. That gives them an incentive to go on the attack.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, Castro and Booker have all gone after Biden in previous debates, with varying success. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii assailed Harris with scathing criticism of her record as a prosecutor.
With time running out, will Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar target Biden in a bid for moderate voters?
Will Steyer, a first-time candidate for public office who will be onstage for the first time at a Democratic debate, try to advance himself by tearing down one of his opponents?
Are the leading contenders ready to rumble?
For months, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has honored a peace pact with Warren, his leading rival for the support of progressives.
But Sanders’ poll numbers have been sliding as Warren’s have been rising, and he’s signaled he’s ready to point out their differences.
“Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not,” he told ABC News on Sunday.
Biden too has started to point out contrasts with Warren. At a recent fundraiser, he described himself as someone with “a proven ability to get things done,” then took an apparent swipe at Warren’s penchant for releasing a wide array of lengthy plans for her presidency. “We’re not electing a planner,” he said.
What’s the impact of Sanders’ recent heart attack?
The 78-year-old had to suspend his public events after suffering a heart attack early this month in Las Vegas. Many debate viewers will be watching Sanders’ energy level on Tuesday to assess his fitness to be commander in chief.
The senator’s health-related detour from the campaign trail could also draw new scrutiny to the other septuagenarians in the race: Biden and Warren, as well as Trump.
In a September debate, Castro appeared to question the mental acuity of Biden, who will turn 77 in November, by falsely accusing him of forgetting a comment on healthcare that he’d made a few minutes before. The attack backfired, earning Castro a heap of criticism.
The next oldest Democratic candidate, Warren, who at 70 is three years younger than Trump, frequently puts her vigor on display by jogging into rallies.
Still, the presence on the debate stage of several younger candidates — Buttigieg is 37; Gabbard is 38; Castro, 45; and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, 47 — will inevitably highlight the age of their older rivals.
Can Harris and Buttigieg escape the mid-tier doldrums?
Harris has been one of the most uneven performers in the debates so far. She surged upward in the polls after confronting Biden in the first debate over his opposition to busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s.
But she had trouble explaining her healthcare plan in the next debate, and Warren has overtaken her as the top woman in the race. Harris tried to contrast herself with Trump in the September debate, but still failed to gain traction.
Buttigieg, one of the top fundraisers in the field, impressed many Democrats early on as a young, erudite, gay war veteran.
He is relatively popular in Iowa, which holds the party’s first presidential nominating contest on Feb. 3, but he has had trouble building support among African Americans, a crucial Democratic constituency. Like the lower-tier candidates, both Buttigieg and Harris face intense pressure to find a breakaway moment. Buttigieg has taken shots, albeit mild ones, at Warren and O’Rourke in recent days.
Will Warren be forced to say how she would pay for “Medicare for all”?
Warren was asked directly in the September debate whether middle-class taxes would rise if she’s able to fulfill her promise to offer Medicare to all Americans. America’s richest individuals and biggest corporations will pay more, she responded, and middle-class families will pay less.
Asked once again if middle-class taxes would rise, Warren sidestepped the question again, saying “total cost” would drop for “hard-working families.”
Republicans see a Democratic nominee who backs higher taxes for the middle class as a gift to Trump. So Warren’s response, if the question arises again, could matter a lot.