By John Whitesides
DETROIT (Reuters) – Progressive allies Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren headline the first night of the second Democratic presidential debates on Tuesday, with eight other contenders aiming for a breakout performance that could propel them into the top tier of the White House race.
The first of two debates on back-to-back nights will give Warren and Sanders, old friends who have been battling for second place in opinion polls behind front-runner Joe Biden, a chance to draw some contrasts between their progressive policies even though they have promised not to attack each other.
The other candidates on stage in Detroit on Tuesday, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, former congressman Beto O’Rourke and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, will be aiming for the sort of post-debate surge that U.S. Senator Kamala Harris enjoyed after a strong performance in the first Democratic debate in Miami last month.
Harris got a bump in the polls when she confronted Biden over his past opposition to forced busing and comments about working with segregationists. She and Biden, the former vice president, will renew their rivalry on the second night of the debate on Wednesday.
The crowded field of about two dozen candidates is vying for attention and financial support in the race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.
The two nights in Detroit could be the last chance for many of the lower-tier contenders to debate on the national stage, as the Democratic National Committee will double its fundraising and polling requirements to qualify for participation in the next debates in September and October.
With Harris showing the political value of a well-placed punch in last month’s debate, fireworks are expected on both nights.
“Be prepared for a fight. The time to play it safe is over,” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, a former adviser on the White House campaign of John Edwards. “If the last debate proved anything, it’s that if you play it safe, you make yourself vulnerable – or you disappear.”
Warren and Sanders, who serve together in the U.S. Senate, appeared on different nights in last month’s debates. Warren, the only top-tier contender on stage the first night, emerged with new momentum after going largely unscathed and showing off her array of progressive policy proposals.
Sanders was mostly sidelined on the next night, standing placidly by as Biden and Harris leaned across him to spar over race.
Warren’s steady rise in the polls, fueled by stealing support from Sanders on the left, will put pressure on him to find some way to reclaim the grassroots energy that came so easily in the 2016 campaign, when he was Hillary Clinton’s only competition.
Warren and Sanders insist they are friends, not rivals, and will not turn on each other for their own political gain.
But most of the other candidates on stage will be more moderate and more desperate, making it likely the race’s two leading progressive could be targeted for their ambitious proposals like universal healthcare and free college tuition.
The stakes will be particularly high for Klobuchar, Buttigieg and O’Rourke, who have all shown top-tier potential at some point but have not been able to sustain momentum.
Buttigieg led the Democratic field in second-quarter fundraising, but an early rise in the polls has flattened out, giving urgency to his need to inject new life into his candidacy.
O’Rourke, another newcomer on the national scene, has stalled after entering the race with high expectations after his surprisingly strong, but losing, U.S. Senate bid in Texas last year turned him into a political star and fundraising powerhouse.
Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, has also remained well outside the top tier in polls since she entered the race. She has concentrated heavily on campaigning in neighboring Iowa, which kicks off the presidential nominating race in February.
With half the field in danger of failing to qualify for the next round of debates, some will be forced to take a hard look at whether they have a viable path to the nomination and enough money to go on.
“Some of these folks are going to be facing a very tough decision soon,” said Democratic strategist Erik Smith, a former adviser on Barack Obama’s White House campaigns who helped stage the party’s 2016 debates. “If you are not on the debate stage, it’s really hard to make the argument that you are an electable candidate in the general election.”
The new face on stage will be Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who did not appear in the first round of debates but qualified for the second round, replacing U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell, who dropped out of the race earlier this month.
Bullock has portrayed himself as a moderate who has won in a conservative state that backed Trump in 2016 and can work across the aisle with Republicans. But he will get competition on that front from rivals such as Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who have made similar appeals.
Hickenlooper and former congressman John Delaney have strongly criticized Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, which would replace private health insurance with a government-run plan, warning it could lead to electoral disaster for Democrats in 2020.
Klobuchar is the only White House candidate in the U.S. Senate who has not signed on as a co-sponsor on Sanders’ bill. She supports creation of a government-run option to co-exist with private insurance.
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)