Detroit (AFP) – Democratic presidential hopefuls honed their attack lines hours before Tuesday’s high-stakes debate, with leading liberals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders expected to battle over who will be torchbearer for the party’s progressive wing.
The two feisty US senators, personal friends who advocate similar left-leaning agendas but employ different styles, will be the top-ranked candidates on stage, along with several moderates who will challenge their call for such dramatic structural change in the US economy.
The debate features 20 candidates over two nights in Detroit, Michigan, a swing state that Donald Trump snatched from Democrats in 2016.
Frontrunner Joe Biden takes the stage Wednesday between senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, prominent African American candidates who have strongly criticized the former vice president on racial issues.
The stakes are sky high. The debate is likely to winnow the sprawling field, perhaps by as much as half, ahead of the next one in September as the party seeks its best nominee to challenge Trump.
“I think right now, it will be Sleepy Joe,” the president said Tuesday, using his custom sobriquet for Biden, when asked by reporters if he would be watching the debates.
“I think he is off of his game by a lot but I think, personally, it is going to be Sleepy Joe.”
Underperformers like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand or Obama-era cabinet member Julian Castro, both polling at under two percent, will be scrambling for a breakout moment that resonates enough with voters to keep their struggling campaigns alive.
Without one, several lower-tier candidates will have little justification for staying in the race.
The Detroit showdown is expected to bring more heat than last month’s opener, in part because of the expected clash between Biden, Harris and Booker.
Trump’s recent disparaging comments about the city of Baltimore and a black member of Congress will no doubt intensify Democrats’ talk about America’s troubled racial legacy.
But Trump also gave Biden, under fire for touting his work with segregationists and opposing federal busing policies aimed at desegregating schools decades ago when he was a US senator, an opening to point to the president as the target of Democratic anger over racial injustice.
After his lackluster June performance when he faced withering criticism from Harris, Biden acknowledged he was ill-prepared to counter the brickbats, but would not be as polite in the second round.
Amid the sustained sniping, Harris — who enjoyed a major bump in support with a viral moment against Biden but has slipped to fourth in polling — signaled she will play fair.
“There’s no reason we can’t be polite,” she said Monday.
Biden has managed to maintain his pole position, with around 32 percent support according to a poll average compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
Warren and Sanders are essentially tied for second, at about half Biden’s support.
– Leftward lean –
With major appeal among the party’s liberal wing, Warren and Sanders share similar political platforms: both support universal health care, tuition-free public college, tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans, a $15-per-hour minimum wage and aggressive regulations on Wall Street.
But while Sanders is a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist seeking to whip up a “political revolution,” Warren calls herself a capitalist who advocates fixes to the existing structure, including strict regulations on US markets.
A lot will ride on how the two, and their rivals, articulate their vision for America’s future.
Critics warn of the risks of driving the party too far leftward ahead of the election.
Trump has already branded the entire 2020 Democratic field “radical” socialists.
Sanders appeared unfazed Monday, reiterating his rallying cry to “take power back from the billionaires and put it in the hands of the people, where it belongs.”
While Warren and Sanders will be selling their liberal prescriptions, several moderates join them on stage Tuesday to urge more centrist approaches, including Colorado ex-governor John Hickenlooper.
“Their large, expansive government solutions are not what I think America is ready for or wants,” Hickenlooper told debate broadcaster CNN, adding that expanding government “is a surefire way to hand the election to Donald Trump.”