Here’s the Democratic debate lineup — and what’s at stake for those onstage

And then there were 10
Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester, N.H., Sept. 7, 2019.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester, N.H., Sept. 7, 2019.

And then there were 10.

Many months after the 2020 presidential campaign began, the Democratic debate stage has been winnowed to 10 candidates, exactly half of the remaining field.

Thursday night’s debate, which will air from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m. on ABC, will present the first opportunity for all of the race’s leading candidates to appear onstage at once.

The lineup

For months Democrats have been awaiting the clash between former Vice President Joe Biden and the party’s leading liberals, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

On either side of them will be Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who are vying to claw away at the front-runners’ polling advantage. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is in the No. 6 position.

Along the edge are four candidates in danger of being left off the stage later this year after the Democratic National Committee raises the qualification standards for the debates: Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on one side; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, on the other.

The format

The debate will begin with one-minute opening statements, followed by questions from the moderators: George Stephanopoulos, David Muir and Linsey Davis from ABC and Jorge Ramos from Univision.

ABC told the campaigns there would be just two commercial breaks, one after about 45 minutes of debating and the other after about 90 minutes. The candidates will debate for another 30 minutes after the second commercial break.

The breaks will be lengthy — four minutes each, according to ABC. There will be no closing statements.

The dynamics

With Biden and Warren onstage together for the first time, the moderators are certain to try to bait them into confronting each other. The pair have a long history, stretching back to a battle in a 2005 Senate hearing over a credit card industry-supported bankruptcy bill Biden backed and Warren, then a Harvard law professor, opposed.

Expect other fireworks along the way.

Harris has seen her campaign flag after her debate-stage confrontation with Biden over busing and school segregation gave her a lift, and so has Buttigieg, who since Labor Day has signaled that he’s prepared to be more combative with the race’s front-runners.

Sanders is likely to take his grievances straight to the moderators, a tactic that could draw in Klobuchar as well.

And then there is O’Rourke, appearing on a debate stage for the first time since the mass shooting in his hometown, El Paso, transformed his campaign from one focused on Iowa to one hopscotching the country addressing various injustices past and present.

He’s also come out with the most robust gun control proposal in the field, arguing for a buyback program that would require owners of assault-style firearms to sell them to the federal government. O’Rourke hasn’t focused on drawing contrasts with fellow Democrats so far, but he has a chance to try to shame his rivals on gun safety Thursday night.

His repeated swearing on the campaign trail prompted ABC to send a memo to the campaigns Tuesday warning that the debate would be broadcast without a delay and “candidates should therefore avoid cursing or expletives in accordance with federal law.”

The wild card is Yang. He’s far exceeded expectations and could serve purposes ranging from comic relief to outsider breath of fresh air.

Yang’s campaign seems to understand this as his place in the debate. A spokesman promised Wednesday that Yang would make an announcement that would “break the mold of presidential politics” at the debate, but did not elaborate.

The stakes

Little that happened in the first two debates changed the long-term nature of the 2020 campaign. The viral moments that did happen became political cotton candy — a sugar high that quickly dissipated and left the candidates involved with more of a stomachache than a permanent advantage.

For the leading candidates, that means their primary responsibility is to survive and advance to the subsequent rounds of debates. This is all but assured for Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg.

But the others may need a boost to remain on the debate stages come November and December, after the Democratic National Committee raises the donor and fundraising thresholds required to qualify. O’Rourke and Klobuchar have sent fundraising appeals stressing this point; Booker’s campaign aides have had internal deliberations on what they may need to change to keep their candidate on the debate stage.


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