Biden Will Be in Crosshairs at Debate as Rivals Look to Score
(Bloomberg) -- Democratic front-runner Joe Biden’s campaign says he’s ready for attacks from across the debate stage as 10 more of the party’s presidential contenders line up Wednesday for the second night of debating in Detroit.
The 76-year-old former vice president could face incoming from two younger candidates, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who will be flanking him at the center of the stage. The lower-polling candidates along the wings of the stage -- including senators, a governor, a mayor, a former Obama administration Cabinet secretary and a tech entrepreneur -- may also try to take shots at Biden or one another to give a boost to their struggling campaigns.
A Biden campaign aide, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said that in at the first set of debates in June, Biden had expected his opponents -- some of whom he considered friends -- would play by certain rules of engagement. This time, the aide said, the former vice president and senator for more than three decades says he’s now prepared to defend against mis-characterizations of his record or flat-out lies.
Another set of 10 Democratic candidates debated Tuesday and split along ideological lines, with the two top-polling hopeful on the stage, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, facing an onslaught from moderates who blasted their promises on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as unrealistic and questioned whether such a platform can beat President Donald Trump in 2020.
That served as a stark display of the central tension in the Democratic nomination race between the party’s progressive faction, which is demanding sweeping change, and the moderate wing, represented chiefly by Biden’s approach of building on the work of the last Democratic administration. The two sides also debated whether hard-left ideas will turn off middle-of-the-road voters or help the party by motivating disaffected people to cast ballots.
The assaults on Warren and Sanders by struggling candidates such as John Delaney and Steve Bullock could end up benefiting Biden as they highlight contrasts while letting the former vice president stay above a squabble that risks alienating some constituencies. It also set a bar on the level and intensity of attacks for Biden to meet.
The debate format itself -- a 2 1/2 hour marathon in which moderators encouraged ideological arguments on a broad range of issues -- could presage a long night for Biden, said Aaron Kall, director of debate for the University of Michigan.
“From a stamina perspective, him staying on message for close to three hours could be difficult,” he said.
But Biden needs to put behind him a rough showing in the Democrats’ first round of debates in late June. Biden was unprepared for and taken aback by an attack from Harris on his 1970s-ear position on school desegregation. He appeared to lose his train of thought in the middle of answers. A strong showing Wednesday would reassure skeptics while a poor performance could threaten to set his third campaign for the presidency on a downward spiral.
For Biden’s opponents, the incentives for an attack are clear. Harris enjoyed a surge in polling and fundraising after her swipes at Biden in the June debate. In the weeks since, they’ve continued to clash over civil rights and their health care plans. Biden and Booker have also battled in the days leading up to the debate, with Booker challenging Biden’s record on criminal justice and Biden responding with similar critiques of the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
A handful of polls conducted immediately after the June debate showed Harris second only to Biden, but her gains have dissipated. A Quinnipiac survey of Democrats and independent voters released Monday showed Biden in the lead with 34%, Warren with 15%, Harris with 12% and Sanders at 11%.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has signaled that he may attack Biden on his immigration record -- including mass deportations by the Obama administration in which Castro also served. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has hinted that she may bring up Biden’s opposition to a child care tax credit that he was the sole senator to vote against in 1981.
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