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What to watch for tonight in the CNN Democratic debate

What to watch for tonight in the CNN Democratic debate

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to share the stage for the first time
What to watch for tonight in the CNN Democratic debate
A worker polishes the stage floor of the Fox Theater in Detroit on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
Photographer: Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times

— You can watch the Democratic presidential debate, which is taking place Tuesday night in Detroit, on CNN, streaming here.

— The 10 Democratic candidates will have 60-second opening statements followed by 60 seconds to answer questions from the CNN moderators, Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper. Each candidate will also have a 60-second closing statement.

Sanders wants to run against Biden, but they’re on different nights

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden have engaged in open warfare recently over their different approaches to health care. Biden accused Sanders of trying to scrap the Affordable Care Act, and Sanders said Biden was “sounding like Donald Trump.”

It’s a contrast Sanders relishes drawing as he argues for his signature “Medicare for All” proposal. But it’s a case that will be tougher to make Tuesday, because the two will not share a stage.

Instead, Sanders will appear next to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a leading liberal candidate with whom he broadly agrees on many policy matters — and who has overtaken him in a number of polls.

The two candidates have avoided criticizing each other so far, with Warren saying at the first debate, “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All” and each candidate often referring to the other as a “friend.”

Any clash between the two contenders would be big news and a surprise to many political observers — but short of that, watch for whether Sanders works to sharpen his arguments against Biden even though the former vice president won’t be present.

How does Tuesday’s all-white lineup talk about race?

The issue of race relations has been central to American politics as President Donald Trump spent the month attacking Democrats of color, starting with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and most recently Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Yet as the historically diverse Democratic field gathers for night one of the July debates, every candidate onstage will be white.

By the chance of CNN’s drawing, all five minority candidates who qualified for the debates will appear Wednesday.

Still, race is expected to be an important topic both nights, especially with the debates being held in Detroit, a city where four out of five residents are black.

The ability to connect with black voters remains one of the biggest question marks for the three candidates at the center of the stage: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who had to defend the lack of diversity in his police force in the first debate; Sanders, who lost among black voters overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton in 2016; and Warren, who has pushed aggressively to define her agenda as focused on both economic and racial justice.

Can O’Rourke stop his slide?

In the June presidential debate, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman whose campaign has struggled to gain traction, did not land the breakout moment that he needed. Instead, he found himself locked in a tense exchange over immigration with the former housing secretary Julián Castro, a fellow Texan.

Since then O’Rourke posted fundraising numbers that fell far short of what the top-tier contenders landed, coming in with only $3.6 million. He currently hovers at between 2% and 3% in many polls.

O’Rourke proved in his 2018 Senate race that he was capable of generating viral moments. Can he find a way to stand out onstage and invigorate his campaign?

Will CNN’s tight leash work?

There will be some changes to the second round of debates, moderated by CNN. For one thing, they’ll be longer: 2 hours of debate time in addition to opening and closing statements. (The NBC debate was 2 hours total and only had a closing statement.) For another, there will be 60-second opening and closing statements. And in between, CNN has promised there will be no “show-of-hands” questions or queries requesting a single-word answer, which NBC used often in the first set of debates.

CNN also plans to put the questions posed by moderators on-screen for television viewers — a potential visual deterrent to candidates dodging direct questions, or at least a reminder that they are doing so. Whether candidates stick to the rules and the time limits remains to be seen.

Bullock makes his debut

Of the 10 candidates onstage Tuesday night, nine will be familiar faces to those who watched the first debates and one will be new: Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana. Bullock, who entered the race in May, will be standing at the far edge of the stage as he makes his pitch that the Democratic Party’s best path forward is with a moderate Democrat who found a way to win a Republican state like Montana — twice.

Bullock, 53, has the kind of bipartisan bona fides and political résumé that would have often appealed to Democrats in years past but it is not clear whether his brand of politics will resonate in an increasingly progressive base. (Last week, Bullock reiterated he is not in favor of impeachment yet.)

With a higher threshold to qualify for the third debate and beyond, there is urgency for Bullock and others polling below 2% to have a star turn in Detroit.

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