The biggest showdown so far in the Democratic race for president is looming.
The next debate in Houston on Sep. 12 will feature only 10 candidates — the first time that all the leading contenders will appear on the same stage.
The result will be a more dramatic dynamic than was seen in previous debates, where a larger field required holding separate events on successive nights.
Houston will give the most serious rivals to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE their best opportunity yet to attack him, if they wish to do so.
Biden, leading in the polls and center-stage, will be flanked by Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.), the next highest-polling candidates.
It will be the first time Warren has debated Biden in the campaign to date.
“We’ve never seen Warren go after anyone before,” said progressive strategist Rebecca Katz. “This might be the first time she or Biden really go on offense.”
Warren has been rising in the polls and drawing large crowds to her rallies, including an estimated 15,000 people who showed up to see her in Seattle on Sunday.
But despite her strength, and that of Sanders, Biden had led almost every national poll.
The former vice president stumbled in the first debate, in Miami in late June, when he came under attack from Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.). The second time around — in Detroit last month — his performance was viewed as better but far from stellar.
Biden has been buttressed by his association with former President Obama and the staunch support he has received to date from black voters.
But he has also faced concerns about his age and sharpness after a number of verbal gaffes. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that, on several occasions, he had garbled the details of an emotive story about meeting an American serviceman in Afghanistan.
The questions that surround Biden make the Houston debate crucial for him.
“There is the Joe Biden who shows up in polls and there is the Joe Biden who shows up on the debate stage, and so far those have been two different men,” said Jehmu Greene, who was a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee in 2017. “Voters want to see the Joe Biden who can beat Trump, and we have not seen that person on the debate stage.”
But some Democratic strategists say there is an upside as well as a downside for the former vice president, if he can deliver a strong enough performance to quieten anxiety.
“The biggest risk is to Biden, because mistakes in debates generally have more impact than solid performances,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “But, by the same token, the people who love Joe Biden but have been wondering about him can be reassured by a good performance. The vice president has a lot to lose but a lot to gain, potentially, as well.”
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There is also the question of how aggressive Warren and Sanders will be — with each other, as well as with Biden.
The two senators are battling for progressive votes, hoping to become the left-leaning alternative to the more centrist Biden. But when Warren and Sanders appeared on the same debate stage in Detroit, there was little sharpness to their exchanges. Instead, they formed a relatively united front against attacks from more moderate figures.
Sanders and Warren are said to be personally fond of each other, and their common ground on policy could help them transcend their rivalry for now, even if the comity doesn’t last.
“September seems real early for them to start putting the gloves on and going after each other,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Paul Maslin. “It seems more likely to me that they will view [the debate] as a way to garnish their progressive credentials and see if they can exploit Biden’s weaknesses.”
Maslin also noted that the visuals of the debate could be as important as anything else. The image of Biden, Warren and Sanders in the middle of the stage could further crystallize the idea that they are the big three in the race — and make it harder for other candidates who are receiving measurable levels of support to make a real impact.
“If Warren and Sanders choose to put pressure on Biden, will that be the dynamic that dominates the debate? Then Harris and [South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete] Buttigieg and everyone else will be just trying to be noticed,” Maslin said.
Harris got a sizable boost in the polls in the wake of the first debates in Miami. Her critique of Biden for his opposition to federally mandated school busing, and for his warm words about segregationist senators, dominated media coverage on the night and afterward.
But Harris’s poll ratings have faded, and she faces continuing questions about her core beliefs. She may need another standout performance to revive her candidacy.
There is another story about the Houston debates, too: that of the candidates who did not make it.
Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (D-N.Y.) quit the race almost as soon as her failure to qualify became apparent. Sizable names in national politics, including Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (Hawaii), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioProtesters splash red paint on NYC streets to symbolize blood De Blasio: Robert E Lee’s ‘name should be taken off everything in America, period’ House Democratic whip pushes back on calls to defund police: We need to focus on reform MORE and Sen. Michael Bennett (Colo.) were among the Democrats who did not make the cut.
The road ahead for them looks bleak.
Even for the leading candidates, there is no room for error in Houston.
“The stakes are much higher — and mistakes will have a significant greater impact,” said Greene.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s presidency.