Democratic presidential hopefuls are already throwing punches ahead of next week’s debates in Detroit, underscoring the pressure candidates are under to have a big moment and ensure their survival in the crowded race.
The timing and ferocity of the infighting reflects a stark reality for many of the candidates – it’s desperation time for those who are struggling to qualify for the third debate and who may be making their final appearance in front of a national audience next week.
Contenders must reach two percent in at least four qualifying polls and secure 130,000 donors to qualify for debates in September — a high bar that only former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump: ‘The Great Divider’ De Blasio: Democratic debates should address ‘why did we lose and what do we do differently’ Nerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Cummings fights every day to improve life in this country Nerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Buttigieg momentum slows after swift rise MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren blasts Trump attacks on Baltimore and Cummings as ‘racist’ and ‘disgusting’ Nerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Buttigieg momentum slows after swift rise MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Democrats wrestle with ‘tough on crime’ histories 2020 Dems hammer Trump over Cummings attacks MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Buttigieg momentum slows after swift rise Booker chases breakout moment by going after Biden MORE have reached so far.
Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Democrats wrestle with ‘tough on crime’ histories 2020 Dems hammer Trump over Cummings attacks MORE (N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit McConnell under fire for burying election bills in ‘legislative graveyard’ Young Turks founder: Sanders, Warren ‘should not spend one second attacking each other’ MORE (Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Young Turks founder: Sanders, Warren ‘should not spend one second attacking each other’ Poll: Most Americans oppose reparations MORE (N.Y.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Trump campaign adviser praises Gabbard for suing Google over alleged censorship Panel: Tulsi Gabbard sues Google for discrimination MORE (Hawaii), Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Democrats denounce Trump’s attack on Cummings: ‘These are not the words of a patriot’ House Democrat offers bill to let students with pot conviction retain federal aid MORE (N.Y.) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit 2020 Dem Tim Ryan announces economic plan to boost manufacturing The Hill’s Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats step up attacks ahead of Detroit debate MORE (Ohio) are among the candidates that haven’t reached both thresholds.
That raises the pressure on them to have some kind of moment at the two nights of debates in Detroit that will allow them to break from the field — like Harris received when she went after Biden over the issue of busing. That became the most talked about moment of two nights of debates in June.
The top contenders are also facing make-or-break moments. Biden cannot afford a second debate lapse, while Warren, Harris and Sanders are feeling pressure to establish themselves as the candidate most likely to give him a run for the nomination.
Biden’s allies worry that a second poor performance would completely deflate his candidacy. His rivals smell blood in the water and a weak frontrunner.
The former vice president will be flanked at the debate by Harris and Booker, his two most vocal critics in the race. The African American senators have hammered Biden over his record on race, from rhetoric that they deem offensive to his decades-old support for a crime bill and his opposition to a federal busing program.
Biden has telegraphed that he intends to draw attention to their own records on civil rights, including Booker’s time as mayor of Newark and Harris’s stint as attorney general of California.
Meanwhile, Sanders has been ramping up his attacks against Biden, accusing him of spreading “lies” about Medicare for all, an issue that electrifies the liberal base but worries centrist Democrats.
“We are ready to expect the unexpected,” a Biden campaign adviser said.
The adviser said the campaign is bracing for attacks from Booker on the crime bill, Harris on busing, De Blasio on trade and workers’ rights, Gillibrand on women’s rights, and from former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro on the Obama administration’s deportations.
“Everyone is looking for their t-shirt moment,” the campaign adviser said, a reference to Harris, whose campaign immediately began selling t-shirts with a picture of her as a young girl waiting for a bus after her exchange with Biden at the first debate.
Biden’s tangling with Booker has elevated the New Jersey senator and raised anticipation around their showdown at the debate. Some Democrats question that strategy, noting that Booker has otherwise struggled for traction in the race.
“It seems like a net negative [for Biden],” said Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko. “It seems like his best path to victory would be not saying a word.”
While Biden will be the center of attention, the weak spots for the other top contenders have come into sharp relief in recent weeks and the moderators are all but certain to dig in on those points.
Buttigieg came hot out of the gate and raised more money than any contender in the second quarter, but he has been unable to break through with black voters, a key constituency in the Democratic primary. At a NAACP forum this week, Buttigieg was on the defensive over how his policies had impacted people of color in South Bend and over the racial make-up of his campaign staff.
“We are still on that journey and it is not done,” Buttigieg said.
Harris has been criticized for being slippery on policy matters, with critics saying that she’s been unclear on defining issues of the race, such as how she’d pay for Medicare for all and whether she supports abolishing private insurance.
Biden telegraphed this week that he’ll press Harris on the matter.
“I find the people who say they are for Medicare for All but are not going to tax the middle class because you don’t need to do that — come on,” Biden told reporters in Detroit. “What is this, some fantasy world here?”
Sanders has been hammering away at Biden, who is the lone top contender to oppose his Medicare for all plan.
But Sanders and Warren will have their work cut out for them on the first night of debate, as they’ll be surrounded by centrist Democrats, such as Klobuchar, former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn Wright HickenlooperNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit The Hill’s Morning Report — DOJ’s planned executions stir new debate Hickenlooper asks Ivanka Trump for 2020 support MORE and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyNerves on display as Democrats face do-or-die moment in Detroit Julián Castro is behind in the polls, but he’s finding a niche Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall MORE (Md.),who are eager to make the case that the party must resist being dragged too far to the left.
“We plan to make Medicare for all a big focus of our debate strategy,” said Michael Hopkins, an aide to Delaney. “We’ve seen from the president that he intends to make socialism one of his big talking points, so when you have someone running on that agenda, as Sanders is, we risk electing Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIlhan Omar defends Cummings after Trump attacks: He ‘wants to distract with his racism’ Donald Trump: ‘The Great Divider’ De Blasio: Democratic debates should address ‘why did we lose and what do we do differently’ MORE for a second term. It’s bad policy and bad politics.”
The low-polling candidates might be the biggest wild cards, as they seek viral moments to help them stand apart from the 19 other candidates in Detroit.
Harris will share the debate stage with Gabbard, who said this week that the California Democrat “is not qualified” to be president because she “has no background or experience in foreign policy, and she lacks the temperament that is necessary for commander in chief.”