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Here's a primer for tonight's Democratic debate

Here's a primer for tonight's Democratic debate

Biden remains the early front-runner
Here's a primer for tonight's Democratic debate
Workers polish the stage floor of the Fox Theater in Detroit on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
Photographer: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Watch the debate tonight at 8 p.m. ET at CNN.com.

DETROIT — While the first night of the second round of Democratic debates showed off the party’s ideological diversity, the second night will look more like the Democratic base.

A random drawing led to an all-white debate stage Tuesday, featuring the Democrats’ most ardent liberal voices, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and an assortment of moderates.

But half of Wednesday night’s lineup will be candidates of color, including the race’s two leading black candidates, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

At the center of the stage will be the candidate who is drawing the support of the most black voters, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The setting could not be more apt. For Biden, Harris and Booker, who have most clearly pinned their primary hopes on earning the support of black voters, Detroit is emblematic of the case they’ve made for beating President Donald Trump in a general election. It relies on exciting the coalition that previously supported Barack Obama, mainly young people and voters who are racial minorities.

This differs slightly from the arguments of some other Democrats, who tend to focus on winning back white working class voters who backed Trump in 2016, particularly in states critical to the Electoral College like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But before any of them can get to the general election, they have to stand out in the primary. Here’s what to watch for tonight.

Biden, Biden, Biden

This much is true: Biden remains the early front-runner in the Democratic primary, bolstered by overwhelming support from black voters. What’s unknown: If Biden has a repeat of his performance in the first debate, in which he was visibly put off by pointed attacks from Harris, can that support hold?

Like Harris did in the first debate, when she challenged Biden on his resistance to court-ordered busing to desegregate schools in the ‘70s, rivals will likely focus on the more controversial parts of Biden’s decadeslong career in the U.S. Senate. Besides his opposition to busing, they include his championing of several bills in the 1980s and 1990s that imposed tough-on-crime measures that directly affected black communities.

Two exhaustive investigations by The New York Times showed Biden has mischaracterized his record on both crime and busing while on the 2020 campaign trail.

At other points in the primary, Biden has faced sharp criticism from Harris and Booker for his willingness to speak positively about lawmakers with a history of being racist, including segregationists he worked with in the Senate.

Biden has, in response, touted his political origin story as a civil rights activist and highlighted his relationship with Obama, the country’s first black president.

In the lead-up to the debate, Biden has promised he will be on the attack. A spokeswoman released a scathing statement this week about Harris’ newly announced health care plan, which seeks to provide Medicare for all Americans while retaining a role for private insurers. Biden also skewered Booker over his criminal justice record as mayor of Newark.

Biden remains the race’s overwhelming favorite among black voters, buoyed by his particular support among the older black voters that dominate the Southern primaries.

Last week, at the annual conference of NAACP delegates, Biden received a warm ovation and vocal support from the audience. In interviews following his speech, voters consistently cited his tenure as Obama’s vice president as the source of the good will, and argued that he was best suited to defeat Trump in a general election.

The challengers: Harris and Booker

Biden will be sandwiched between Harris and Booker in the center of the stage.

Both have made repeated trips to South Carolina, the early primary state where black voters make up the overwhelming share of the Democratic primary electorate. Both have experienced their best moments of the campaign when hitting Biden’s record on race and racial equality. Both see themselves as well-positioned, should Biden fade, to pick up the black voters that currently support him.

In recent interviews, Booker has telegraphed his intention of going directly at Biden during the debate. The New Jersey senator has struggled to break into the top tier of candidates, but his advisers say they are confident that they can draw an effective contrast on criminal justice reform.

Booker, more than Biden or Harris, has also received plaudits from progressive economists for his baby bonds policy, which would take aim at the racial wealth gap by creating government-run savings accounts for every child born in the United States.

Harris has the fortunate problem of sky-high expectations going into the second debate, because — just as in the televised Judiciary Committee hearings that launched her into the national consciousness — she seemed at her prosecutorial best in the first one.

In its aftermath, her fundraising picked up, and she has embraced speaking more about her biography. She has also now surpassed Biden in endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Harris has yet to round out her policy platform, and in a recent interview with The Times, she said she wasn’t trying to “restructure society,” widening the distance between herself and the party’s left wing. A recent proposal about student loan forgiveness was met with derision online.

Where she succeeds, her campaign argues, is focusing on policies that will tangibly improve black voters’ lives. These include proposals to expand access to safe drinking water, grow minority businesses and decriminalize marijuana.

What about the rest?

This will not be a three-person debate, and other candidates will be confident that, despite so much focus on Biden, Harris, and Booker, they can also make an impression with black voters.

Two candidates to watch outside of the top three — Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Castro.

De Blasio, who can tout executive experience in America’s largest city, has been criticized by social justice activists for his handling of police abuse cases. But crime has continued to drop on his watch, and he has also invoked his interracial family to project himself as a candidate who understands black people’s concerns.

Castro and his focus on policies, conversely, have made him a stealth darling of progressive activists in recent months. He has repeatedly used major speeches to highlight causes that are particularly important to young black voters, and he was the first major candidate to put out a police reform platform. Onstage, he will stand next to Booker.

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