LOS ANGELES (AP) — Democratic presidential contenders take the debate stage Thursday for a sixth and final time in 2019, as they seek to persuade the nation that they are the party’s best hope to deny President Donald Trump a second term.
The televised contest will bring seven rivals to heavily Democratic California, the biggest prize in the primary season and home to 1 in 8 Americans. Coming a day after a politically divided U.S. House voted to impeach Trump, the debate will underscore the paramount concern for Democratic voters: Who can beat him in November?
With voters distracted by the holidays and impeachment proceedings in Washington, the debate in Los Angeles could turn out to be the least watched so far. Viewership has declined in each round though five debates, and even campaigns have grumbled that candidates would rather be on the ground in early voting states than taking the debate stage again.
The lack of a clear frontrunner reflects the uncertainty gripping many voters. Would Trump be more vulnerable to a challenge from the party’s liberal wing or a candidate tethered to the centrist establishment? Should the pick be a man or a woman, or a person of color? The Democratic field is also marked by wide differences in age, geography and wealth, and the party remains divided over issues including health care and the influence of big-dollar fundraising.
There will be a notable lack of diversity onstage compared to earlier debates. For the first time this cycle, the debate will not feature a black or Latino candidate.
The race in California has largely mirrored national trends, with former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren clustered at the top of the field, followed by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, businessman Andrew Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.
Conspicuously missing from the lineup at Loyola Marymount University on Thursday will be former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who is unable to qualify for the contests because he is not accepting campaign donations. But even if he’s not on the podium, Bloomberg has been felt in the state: He’s running a deluge of TV advertising in California to introduce himself to voters who may know little, if anything, about him.
Bloomberg’s late entry into the contest in November highlighted the overriding issue in the contest, electability, a sign of the unease within the Democratic Party about its crop of candidates and whether any is strong enough to unseat an incumbent president. The nominee will be tasked with splicing together the party’s disparate factions — a job Hillary Clinton struggled with after defeating Sanders in a long and bitter primary fight in 2016.
Biden adviser Symone Sanders expects another robust exchange on health care. “This is an issue that is not going away, and for good reason, because it is an issue that in 2018 Democrats ran on and won,” she said.
Jess O’Connell with Buttigieg’s campaign said the candidate will “be fully prepared to have an open and honest conversation about where there are contrasts between us and the other candidates. This is a really important time to start to do that. Voters need time to understand the distinctions between these candidates.” The key issues, he said, are health care and higher education.
The unsettled race has seen surges at various points by Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg, though it’s become defined by that cluster of shifting leaders, with others struggling for momentum. California Sen. Kamala Harris, once seen as among the top tier of candidates, shelved her campaign this month, citing lack of money. And Warren has become more aggressive, especially toward Buttigieg, as she tries to recover from shifting explanations of how she’d pay for “Medicare for All” without raising taxes on the middle class.
In a replay of 2016, the shifting race for the Democratic nomination has showcased the rift between the party’s liberal wing, represented by Sanders and Warren, and candidates parked in or near the political center, including Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg.
Here are six big questions The Associated Press identified as most important in the debate.
Forgive us for asking this question first, but why are Democrats debating this week at all? It’s just six days before Christmas, Congress is making history on multiple fronts in Washington and primary voters have shown decreasing interest in each of the first five rounds. That’s not to mention that most of the candidates — those in the top tier, at least — would happily skip this end-of-year clash. While the three lower-tier candidates in the debate will be desperate to make a splash, much of the political world will be focused elsewhere. That makes the bar extraordinarily high for a narrative-changing moment.
IS BIDEN THE FRONT-RUNNER AGAIN?
What a road it’s been for Joe Biden. He opened the year in a dominant position, struggled to perform like a frontrunner, appeared to lose the confidence of his party’s establishment and somehow appears to be on solid footing again. The former vice president’s rise and fall and rise again may have more to do with the inability of those around him to take a big step forward. Regardless of the reason, Biden enters the night in as strong a position as he’s been in all year. He needs to avoid any major gaffes to stay there.
THE END OF ‘MEDICARE FOR ALL’?
It was a litmus issue for ambitious Democrats a year ago. But now, only one of the seven Democrats on the debate stage is promising to fight for Medicare for All immediately after taking office. That would be the bill’s author, Bernie Sanders, who is nothing if not consistent. The other progressive onstage, Elizabeth Warren, has settled on a plan to transition to Medicare for All by the end of her first term, but none of the other candidates would go even that far. Most support a hybrid system that would give consumers the choice to join a government-run system or keep the private insurance they have. No issue has symbolized the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party in 2020 more than this one. And for now, the centrists appear to be winning.
CAN WARREN STEADY THE SHIP?
Speaking of health care, Warren’s inability to maintain a consistent position on the issue is directly tied to her recent struggles. Lest anyone suggest debates don’t matter, it was her awkward explanation for how she’d pay for Medicare for All in October’s debate that set off her slide. The Massachusetts senator tried to change the narrative in recent days by seizing on her moderate rivals’ connection to wealthy donors. But amid her evolving positions on health care, she’s almost certain to face some tough questions. We’ve noted that fewer people will likely be paying attention to this late-December affair, but it probably matters more for Warren than anyone else.
CAN BUTTIGIEG HOLD HIS GROUND?
The man you hadn’t heard of a year ago enters the night as a legitimate top-tier presidential contender. And as such, Pete Buttigieg is being forced to answer some of the tough questions he’s sidestepped for much of the year as the political world focused on the 37-year-old mayor’s underdog story. There’s a lot to dig into. In just the past week, Buttigieg hosted wealthy donors at a California wine cave, disclosed his consulting work for a big insurance company that preceded big layoffs and released a list of his bundlers that turned out to be incomplete. His challenges with black voters are well documented, but suddenly, Buttigieg’s corporate connections are beginning to alienate the party’s progressive activists. Danger.
DOES DIVERSITY STILL MATTER TO DEMOCRATS?
Democrats are fighting to persuade black and brown voters that they’re not taking their vote for granted in 2020. That fight will no doubt get harder if those voters tune in to Thursday night’s debate, where just one nonwhite candidate will appear on stage. That’s Andrew Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who just barely met the polling threshold to qualify. Cory Booker, one of two African Americans still in the race, was not so lucky. Neither was Julián Castro, the only Latino running. Age could be a challenge as well: Three of the four top-tier candidates are in their 70s. This issue is not going away for Democrats, who need a young and racially diverse coalition to beat Trump, now 73, next November.