'Sledgehammer on Trump, scalpel on Sanders': Biden approaches key debate

Martin Pengelly in New York

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will square off in the 11th Democratic debate on Sunday night, in a contest moved from Arizona to Washington DC and held without a live audience due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Related: Can Democrats unite the party in time for November's election?

The escalating public health crisis has played havoc with all areas of US life, but Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio will still go to the polls on Tuesday.

After his spectacular rebound on Super Tuesday and strong performances this week, Biden is ahead in delegates earned, seemingly on course for the nomination to face Donald Trump in November.

But Sanders has refused to throw in the towel, saying this week that though he may be “losing the debate over electability”, he is a champion for the views of most younger voters and wants to influence the general election platform.

“On Sunday, I very much look forward to the debate in Arizona with my friend Joe Biden,” Sanders said, indicating he would challenge the former vice-president on healthcare reform, the minimum wage and other progressive priorities.

Nick Carter, Sanders’ political outreach director in 2016, told the New York Times the Vermont senator was “pivoting to ensure that the issues that he has built his political career around continue to be front and center in the political dialogue.

“I also think he has [at the] top of [his] mind ensuring his supporters and those unenthusiastic about a Biden candidacy don’t call it a day.”

Many in the Democratic establishment would prefer the independent from Vermont admit defeat and put his shoulder to the wheel for Biden.

In emails to the Guardian, Martin O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and candidate for the presidential nomination, said he was “guessing, most kindly, that Bernie is thinking as quickly as Biden sprung back to political life, he could as easily stumble and so he has an obligation to hang in there.

“What he risks is that more and more people [see] his messiah veneer fall away and his hypocrisy on many issues – gun safety, immigration reform, Russia interference – will strip away his lovable old uncle persona.”

At the polls, Biden’s comeback from seemingly inevitable defeat has been powered by older voters, moderates, voters in swing counties and an overwhelming percentage of African Americans.

“I think Biden has been so battered and scarred already,” O’Malley said, “[that] I’m not sure there is much more that Bernie can do … in fact, Bernie could be a useful foil for Biden’s need to appeal to and win more independents.”

Reed Galen, a former aide to George W Bush and John McCain, left the Republican party in 2016 and is now part of the Lincoln Project, a super Pac devoted to producing ads against Trump.

Sanders is “using the core of his support base to not drop out gracefully”, Galen told the Guardian on Saturday, adding: “I don’t think Bernie Sanders has grace about him. From my perspective I think he should have [dropped out] and let the Biden campaign go and do the things it needs to do vis-a-vis Trump.

“But Bernie doesn’t care because he’s not a Democrat and never has been, so from his supporters’ perspective, if they wreck the Democratic party it’s just another win for them.”

Galen and O’Malley both expected a fiery contest in CNN’s Washington studio.

“Biden won’t stand there like a punching bag,” said O’Malley, who experienced the highs and lows of the debate stage alongside Sanders and Hillary Clinton. “He will hit back when pressed. And Bernie has no choice but to press.”

Galen said he thought Biden had a good opportunity to appeal again to moderates and independents, but added a warning about the pitfalls of any such bare-knuckle political bout, into which Biden has fallen in this and other elections.

“When you hit that debate stage it’s like a roller coaster heading downhill,” he said. “You hope it’s going to stay on the tracks but once in a while it goes flying off the edge.”

The coronavirus outbreak – which caused Univision host Jorge Ramos to step aside as a debate host after contact with someone exposed to Covid-19 – seems sure to dominate proceedings.

Both Biden and Sanders addressed the nation on the subject this week, attempting to present a contrast with Trump’s wildly uneven attempts to lead.

Related: Bernie or Bust: the Sanders fans who will never vote for Biden

Galen said he thought Biden’s advisers would therefore seek to “utilise what Biden has been best at, which is relying on personal experience.

“We saw this week that he started talking about what he’s done in government and what government can and can’t do. I think his team will try to stay in that fairly narrow zone.

“But it wouldn’t surprise me if they also spend a fair amount of time focused on Trump. Here’s a way that he can use a sledgehammer on Trump but a scalpel on Sanders: by saying, ‘Here’s a guy we elected that had no experience, no people willing to work for him, no people he is willing to listen to. We can’t have that anymore.’”

Galen and O’Malley both deplored a tweet sent by Trump’s campaign this week which called Biden a “rotting corpse of a candidate”, and said it was a taste of the fierce and dirty fight to come.

“There is one question and only one question that viewers will be asking themselves during Sunday’s debate,” O’Malley said, “and it is this: which of these two candidates would do the best job of keeping me and my family safe in a big emergency, like, a pandemic.

“What I do know is that of the three men left [including Trump], more and more people are wishing Biden were already in charge.”

In fact, the Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is still campaigning. For the debate in Washington on Sunday, however, she did not meet qualification criteria set by the Democratic National Committee.