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What to Watch For in the CNN Democratic Debate


Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have engaged in open warfare recently over their different approaches to health care. Mr. Biden accused Mr. Sanders of trying to scrap the Affordable Care Act, and Mr. Sanders said Mr. Biden was “sounding like Donald Trump.”

It’s a contrast Mr. Sanders relishes drawing as he argues for his signature Medicare for All proposal. But it’s a case that will be tougher to make on Tuesday, because the two will not share a stage.

Instead, Mr. Sanders will appear next to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading liberal candidate with whom he broadly agrees on many policy matters — and who has overtaken him in a number of polls.

The two candidates have avoided criticizing each other so far, with Ms. Warren saying at the first debate, “I’m with Bernie on ‘Medicare for all’” and each candidate often referring to the other as a “friend.”

Any clash between the two contenders would be big news and a surprise to many political observers — but short of that, watch for whether Mr. Sanders works to sharpen his arguments against Mr. Biden even though the former vice president won’t be present.

The issue of race relations has been central to American politics as President Trump spent the month attacking Democrats of color, starting with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and most recently with Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Yet as the historically diverse Democratic field gathers for night one of the July debates, every candidate onstage will be white.

By the chance of CNN’s drawing, all five minority candidates who qualified for the debates will appear on Wednesday.

Still, race is expected to be an important topic both nights, especially with the debates in Detroit, a city where four out of five residents are black.

The ability to connect with black voters remains one of the biggest question marks for the three candidates at the center of the stage: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who had to defend the lack of diversity in his police force in the first debate; Mr. Sanders, who lost among black voters overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton in 2016; and Ms. Warren, who has pushed aggressively to define her agenda as focused on both economic and racial justice.

[The democratic debate lineups could lead to fireworks. Here’s why.]

In the June presidential debate, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman whose campaign has struggled to gain traction, did not land the breakout moment that he needed. Instead, he found himself locked in a tense exchange over immigration with the former housing secretary Julián Castro, a fellow Texan.

Since then Mr. O’Rourke posted fund-raising numbers that fell far short of what the top-tier contenders landed, coming in with only $3.6 million. He currently hovers at between 2 percent and 3 percent in many polls.

Mr. O’Rourke proved in his 2018 Senate race that he was capable of generating viral moments. Can he find a way to stand out onstage and invigorate his campaign?

There will be some changes to the second round of debates, moderated by CNN. For one thing, they’ll be longer: 2 hours of debate time in addition to opening and closing statements. (The NBC debate was 2 hours total, and only had a closing statement.) For another, there will be 60-second opening and closing statements. And in between, CNN has promised there will be no “show-of-hands” questions or queries requesting a single-word answer, which NBC used often in the first set of debates.

CNN also plans to put the questions posed by moderators onscreen for television viewers — a potential visual deterrent to candidates dodging direct questions, or at least a reminder that they are doing so. Whether candidates stick to the rules and the time limits remains to be seen.

Of the ten candidates onstage Tuesday night, nine will be familiar faces to those who watched the first debates and one will be new: Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana. Mr. Bullock, who entered the race in May, will be standing at the far edge of the stage as he makes his pitch that the Democratic Party’s best path forward is with a moderate Democrat who found a way to win a Republican state like Montana — twice.

Mr. Bullock, 53, has the kind of bipartisan bona fides and political résumé that would have often appealed to Democrats in years past but it is not clear whether his brand of politics will resonate in an increasingly progressive base. (Last week, Mr. Bullock reiterated he is not in favor of impeachment yet.)

With a higher threshold to qualify for the third debate and beyond, there is urgency for Mr. Bullock and others polling below 2 percent to have a star-turn in Detroit.


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