Three Things To Watch During ABC’s One-Night Democratic Debate

A sign points to the Spin Room in the Media Center at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019 ahead of tonight's 2020 Democratic Party Presidential debate to be held on campus. (Photo by Rob... A sign points to the Spin Room in the Media Center at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019 ahead of tonight's 2020 Democratic Party Presidential debate to be held on campus. (Photo by Robyn BECK / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 12, 2019 3:18 p.m.
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With billionaire Tom Steyer falling one poll short of the September debate, 10 candidates will crowd onto the stage Thursday for only one night of sparring. 

Here’s what to look out for during the three-hour bonanza:

Frontrunners standing lectern-to-lectern for the first time

Thursday marks the first time former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will all share the stage. 

Most of the focus has been on the Biden-Warren matchup, the only permutation of the three that has not yet occurred. The two candidates’ styles could not be more different. Warren is wonky, detail-oriented and a high school champion debater. Biden is meandering, imprecise and prone to verbal missteps. 

Warren has yet to take much heat from the other candidates, while Biden got walloped by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in the first debate, and has since been a natural target for all the presidential hopefuls trying to set themselves apart. 

Neither Biden’s nor Warren’s campaign style has been marked by an eagerness to attack specific candidates so far. But it may behoove Warren to highlight Biden’s weaknesses, as she’s experienced a recent surge of support. Warren has had strong performances in the debates so far and hopes to surpass Sanders as the second-place candidate once and for all.

Candidates looking for a chink in the Biden armor

Biden has taken hits during the first two debates, and has had a few stumbles in between — but it didn’t seem to matter. Teflon Joe has largely held fairly steady as the leader in the polls, no matter his gaffes or poor verbal sparring. 

Democratic voters still seem to think that he’s got the best chance against President Donald Trump in the general election, and that continues to outweigh any negatives he may have. 

Even Harris’ aforementioned carefully premeditated slam about busing — very effective in the moment and giving her a temporary boost in the polls — didn’t really hurt him much. The other campaigns know this too. We’ll see if candidates take a different tack, maybe making the case for their own electability instead of trying to ding the frontrunner, with their precious few minutes to speak. 

The underdogs are looking for a moment to shine

We’ve reached the point in the process where candidates who haven’t gained any traction are starting to take themselves out of the running. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pulled the plug when she didn’t qualify for the debate. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) sees a brighter future for himself in the Senate, choosing to take on Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in 2020 instead. 

The lower-polling candidates don’t have to panic quite yet: everyone on Thursday’s stage has qualified for the October debates as well. 

But all of them are looking for an infusion, something to point at to justify their decision to keep plugging along rather than leaving for other races. 

For example, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) received an influx of attention due to his passionate reaction to the El Paso shooting, and has since recalibrated his campaign to focus on sites of “injustice” perpetrated by the Trump administration rather than following the typical orbit of early voting states. He’ll probably inject his new approach into his performance. 

We’ll see if any other candidates try to use Thursday’s debate to pivot to a new issue, or pick a topic to define his or her campaign going forward.

Logistics (and a bonus!)

The debate will be hosted by ABC News and Univision. It will be moderated by chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir, ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.

The debate will be held in Houston, where it is currently a balmy 92 degrees with 51 percent humidity. Perhaps these tropical climes provide a clue as to what unusual garb tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has been hinting that he’ll whip out. We at TPM are prepared for everything from a tech bro vest to a gold chain.

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