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Democratic presidential debate: Houston 2019

It’s been whittled down to ten.

The top democratic presidential candidates vying to be the last one standing, and challenge Donald Trump for the top job in the 2020 US election.

And today they’ll all go head-to-head on one stage for the first time in the third round of debates in Houston. It will bring some of them closer to their shared goal. And push others further away. But who is likely to emerge victorious? And who might come undone?

The setting could make it harder to avoid skirmishes among early frontrunners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The other seven candidates, meanwhile, are under growing pressure to prove they’re still in the race to take on Mr Trump next year. The debate comes at a pivotal point as many American voters move past their summer holidays and start to pay closer attention to the campaign. With the audience getting bigger, the ranks of candidates shrinking and first votes approaching in five months, the stakes are rising.

“For a complete junkie or someone in the business, you already have an impression of everyone,” said Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004 and later chaired the Democratic National Committee.

“But now you are going to see increasing scrutiny with other people coming in to take a closer look.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, September 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. Picture: AP/Robert F. Bukaty.
media_cameraDemocratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, September 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. Picture: AP/Robert F. Bukaty.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, during a rally on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Austin, Texas. Picture: Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP.
media_cameraDemocratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, during a rally on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Austin, Texas. Picture: Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP.

The ABC News debate is the first confined to one night after several candidates dropped out and others failed to meet new qualification standards. If nothing else, viewers will see the diversity of the modern Democratic Party. The debate, held on the campus of historically black Texas Southern University, features several women, people of colour and a gay man, a striking contrast from the increasingly white and male Republican Party. It will unfold in a rapidly changing state that Democrats hope to eventually bring into their column. Perhaps the biggest question is how directly the candidates will attack one another. Some fights that were predicted in previous debates failed to materialise with candidates like Mr Sanders and Ms Warren in July joining forces to take on their rivals.

The White House hopefuls and their campaigns are sending mixed messages about how eager they are to make frontal attacks on anyone other than Mr Trump. That could mean the first meeting between Ms Warren, the rising progressive calling for “big, structural change,” and Mr Biden, the more cautious but still ambitious establishmentarian, doesn’t define the night. Or that Kamala Harris, the California senator, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, look to reclaim lost momentum not by punching upward but by re-emphasising their own visions for the US.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at Civic Center Park on September 9, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Picture: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/AFP.
media_cameraDemocratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at Civic Center Park on September 9, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Picture: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/AFP.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. Picture: AP/Robert F. Bukaty.
media_cameraDemocratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. Picture: AP/Robert F. Bukaty.

Underscoring his establishment roots, Mr Biden released a new advertisement hours before the debate aimed at deflecting further criticism of former President Barack Obama’s administration. At the recent Detroit debate, Mr Biden said he was “a little surprised” at the flak he took from fellow Democrats about Mr Obama’s legacy. “He was a president our children could and did look up to,” Mr Biden says in the commercial.

“I was proud to serve as his vice president, but never more proud than the day we passed health care.”

Mr Biden, who has led most national and early state polls since he joined the field in April, is downplaying the prospects of a titanic clash with Ms Warren, despite their well-established policy differences on health care, taxes and financial regulation.

For her part, Ms Warren has consistently said that she has no interest in going after Democratic opponents.

Yet both campaigns are also clear that they don’t consider it a personal attack to draw sharp policy contrasts. Ms Warren, who as a Harvard law professor once challenged then-Senator Mr Biden in a Capitol Hill hearing on bankruptcy law, has noted repeatedly that they have sharply diverging viewpoints. Her standard campaign pitch doesn’t mention Mr Biden but is built around a plea that the “time for small ideas is over,” an implicit criticism of more moderate Democrats who want, for example, a public option health care plan instead of single-payer or who want to repeal Mr Trump’s 2017 tax cuts but not necessarily raise taxes further.

Mr Biden, likewise, doesn’t often mention Ms Warren or Mr Sanders. But he regularly contrasts the price tag of his public option insurance proposal to the single- payer system that Ms Warren and Mr Sanders back.

Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign emphasised that he’s released more than two decades of tax returns, in contrast to the president. That’s a longer period than Ms Warren, and it could reach back into part of her pre-Senate career when she did legal work that included some corporate law.

Mr Biden’s campaign won’t say that he’d initiate any look that far back into Ms Warren’s past, but in July, Mr Biden was ready throughout the debate with specific counters for rivals who brought up weak spots in his record. There are indirect avenues to chipping away at MR Biden’s advantages, according to Democratic consultant Karen Finney, who advised Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ms Finney noted Mr Biden’s consistent polling advantages on the question of which Democrat can defeat Mr Trump.

A Washington Post-ABC poll this week found that among Democrats and Democratic- leaning voters, Mr Biden garnered 29 per cent support overall. Meanwhile, 45 per cent thought he had the best chance to beat Mr Trump, even though just 24 per cent identified him as the “best president for the country” among the primary field.

“That puts pressure on the others to explain how they can beat Trump,” Ms Finney said.

According to Ms Finney, voters “want to see presidents on that stage,” and MR Biden, as a known quantity, already reaches the threshold. “If you’re going to beat him, you have to make your case,” she said. Some candidates say that’s their preferred path.

Spokesman Ian Sams said Ms HaRRIS will “make the connection between (Mr Trump’s) hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country”. Mr Buttigieg, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to use his argument for generational change as an indirect attack on the top tier. The mayor is 37. Mr Biden, Mr Sanders and MsWarren are 76, 78 and 70, respectively — hardly a contrast to the 73-year-old Mr Trump.

There’s also potential home state drama with two Texans in the race. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Obama housing secretary Julian Castro clashed in an earlier debate over immigration. Mr Castro has led the left flank on the issue with a proposal to decriminalise border crossings.

For Mr O’Rourke, it will be the first debate since a massacre in his hometown of El Paso prompted him to overhaul his campaign into a forceful call for sweeping gun restrictions, complete with regular use of the word “f***” in cable television interviews.

Mr O’Rourke has given no indication of whether he’ll bring the rhetorical flourish to broadcast television.

— With AP

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin

Originally published as Trump’s top challengers in showdown

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