Democrats taking the stage for the final presidential debate of the year — this one in Los Angeles — have a prime opportunity to sway those Democrats still making up their minds about who should challenge President Trump in 2020.
They face the cameras at Loyola Marymount University with just over six weeks left until the first contest of the nominating fight.
Here are the Democrats who qualified for the debate and what’s at stake for each of them:
The former vice president has sustained his position as the solid frontrunner in national polls despite tepid fundraising and unsteady performances in previous debates. His strong support among black voters has been a crucial source of strength, especially for the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary.
But in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in early February, Biden has fallen behind Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The debate gives Biden a chance to buttress his standing in those two states, particularly at a time when multiple rivals share his interest in attacking Buttigieg. But with many Democrats wondering whether Biden, 77, has the wherewithal to take on Trump, a major flub could raise further doubts.
The 37-year-old mayor is bracing himself for what could well be the most brutal attacks of his campaign. His popularity in Iowa and New Hampshire makes him a major threat to rivals who fear that Buttigieg victories in one or both of those states could give him the momentum he needs to expand his base of support beyond mostly white voters.
Buttigieg is competing with Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for moderate voters, but the top two progressive contenders, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have just as much incentive to stop his upward momentum, and they’ve already gone after him on the campaign trail. The thing to watch is how Buttigieg responds to the expected onslaught.
Klobuchar has managed to gain some traction in Iowa, where her pragmatism and fiscal moderation are appealing to Democrats who see “Medicare for all” and other parts of the progressive agenda as too far left for the American mainstream.
The Midwesterner is still awaiting the kind of debate moment that could establish her as a viable alternative to Biden or Buttigieg.
Sanders’ supporters are so committed that it would take a dramatic mistake to diminish his standing as a leading contender for the party nomination. The 78-year-old senator seems to have pushed down concerns about his health after a heart attack in October.
A steady performance, with familiar reminders of the key planks of his pro-worker agenda, should be enough to keep him in the top tier. It’s an open question whether the truce between him and Warren might finally rupture.
The billionaire from San Francisco has dumped tens of millions of dollars into television advertising — first promoting Trump’s impeachment, then more recently his own candidacy.
Yet the former hedge-fund chief has failed to draw broad support. He often touts his heavy spending on the fight against climate change and corporate influence on American politics. That’s apparently not working, so the question is whether Steyer can come up with anything else that sets him apart from his competitors.
The L.A. debate is Warren’s chance to reclaim some lost momentum. After releasing a steady stream of plans for big structural change in the U.S. economy, she peaked in polls in October.
By then, Biden and other opponents were attacking Warren for refusing to provide details on how she’d cover the cost of expanding Medicare to all Americans. After she released the full $20.5-trillion plan on Nov. 1, her campaign stalled, with some Democrats fretting that it might be too radical for the Midwest battleground states that often decide presidential elections. Can she now win the argument that her aggressive brand of progressive politics is the formula for beating Trump?
The entrepreneur will be the only candidate of color onstage. His presence is a testament to his success at fundraising and his robust support among a relatively small group of voters.
So far, Yang has remained a sort of novelty candidate, with a signature proposal to provide $1,000 in monthly income to all adult U.S. citizens. The debate Thursday gives Yang a chance to show he has a broader command of the full sweep of issues faced by a president.
Who won’t be onstage?
The Democratic National Committee’s increasingly tough criteria for getting a spot on the debate stage have excluded several well-known contenders, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro. Also absent will be former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire who entered the race last month and is spending his own money on a major national ad campaign.