Democratic debate: Biden and Warren to face off as 2020 race intensifies

Lauren Gambino in Washington
Photograph: Gretchen Ertl/Reuters

Ten candidates. Three hours. One stage. A Texas showdown. This Thursday, Democratic White House 2020 hopefuls meet for round three of the party’s presidential debates as the contest for the party’s nomination enters a new, more urgent stage.

The Houston hothouse will be the first time the party’s top contenders appear together on a single night.

Related: As Houston readies to host the next 2020 debates, focus turns to gun control

Among the most highly anticipated face-to-faces of the evening will be between former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who have yet to share a stage in this race.

Warren is jostling with the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to be the leading progressive alternative to Biden, who has maintained a comfortable lead over his rivals despite a summer of gaffes and miscues.

Beyond the top three candidates, the California senator Kamala Harris and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg are looking to regain the momentum that propelled their candidacies earlier in the primary. Rounding out the stage arethe Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, the New Jersey senator Cory Booker, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, former housing secretary Julián Castro and the only non-politician, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, need a breakout moment to jumpstart their lagging campaigns.

Mo Elleithee, a former spokesman of the Democratic National Committee who is now the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, said to expect a “messy debate”.

“Everyone is excited to see the frontrunners sharing a stage, but there will be 10 people on that stage,” he said. “It’s really hard to do what you want to do with that many people.”

Even the strongest debate performance must have a second act, he said.

“What do you do the next day or the next week after the debate?” he said. “These debates don’t tend to have winners. They have moments that a candidate can use as a springboard.”

Judy Downs, the executive director of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa, said the energy and support candidates are generating on the ground in the first-in-the-nation caucus state doesn’t always come across in a televised debate.

But that doesn’t mean Iowa’s Democrats won’t be watching.

“Voters are looking for authenticity,” Downs said. “A candidate who can shake off their pre-written notes, talking points and stump speech – a candidate who seems like they’re going off script to address issues with the same sense of urgency and energy that we feel here on the ground in Iowa as Democrats – I think that would really resonate.”

Electability – a fraught and elusive measure of a candidate’s ability to be successful in a general election – is front of mind for many Democratic voters.

Biden has portrayed himself as the strongest choice against Donald Trump, pointing to polls that shows him ahead of the president in head-to-head match-ups. Public opinion surveys suggests Democrats agree.

Asked which Democrat has the best chance of beating Trump, 42% of registered Democrats chose Biden compared with 14% who said Sanders and 12% who picked Warren, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The same poll asked Democrats who they thought would be the “best president for the country”, the result looked starkly different: 23% said Biden, 19% said Warren and 16% said Sanders.

A key challenge for Biden’s rivals in the coming weeks will be how to close the gap between voters’ personal preferences and who they believe other voters will support.

During Thursday’s debate, Biden is preparing again for an all-out assault on his record and his approach. He and Warren have longstanding differences over bankruptcy law and other financial and regulatory issues.

The Ohio representative Tim Ryan, one of 10 Democratic hopefuls who did not qualify for the Houston debate, told Bloomberg News recently that he thought Biden was “declining”. He added: “I don’t think he has the energy. You see it almost daily.”

Warren emerged from the first two debates largely unscathed. She and Sanders worked together to fend off attacks from lower-polling, moderate candidates in Detroit, where the Massachusetts senator delivered one of the most memorable lines of the event: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

But she may receive a few jabs on Thursday. On the campaign trail, several candidates have noted that “plans” are not enough – a shot at Warren’s voluminous roster of policy proposals that inspired her campaign mantra: “I’ve got a plan for that.”

Harris entered the debates with an explosive performance in June but she has struggled to sustain the momentum she built.

Her searing – and surprisingly personal attack – on Biden over his record on race boosted her standing in the polls and led to a rush of donations but the moment proved fleeting.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who supports Harris, said the former California attorney general had demonstrated that she is “uniquely qualified to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump”. Now he believes she must show voters that she is, as she has described herself, a “joyful warrior”.

“If she’s on stage having fun and she’s smiling and laughing,” Sellers said, “she’s winning the debate.”

Buttigieg had a furious rise from near-obscurity to the front of the Democratic field earlier this year. His prodigious fundraising has helped his campaign build a massive field operation in Iowa, which holds the first in the nation primary contest, but it hasn’t translated yet in polling.

The Virginia representative Don Beyer, who endorsed Buttigieg, says Democratic voters have a history of gravitating toward “young, articulate candidates with bold, fresh ideas”. Beyer has seen it before: he was an early supporter of Barack Obama, endorsing the future president when he was still trailing behind Hillary Clinton.

“The middle is the perfect place to be at this point in September,” Beyer said.

Booker, whose widely praised debate performance in Detroit was not matched by growth in the polls, couldn’t agree more.

“I don’t want to win the summer of 2019,” Booker told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “I want to win the primaries of 2020.”

Asked how he intends to stand out in a 10-person debate, Booker rubbed his pate: “I believe I’m the only bald person on that stage.”