By Victor Reklaitis, MarketWatch
With Elizabeth Warren challenging Joe Biden for the front-runner label, the backdrop to Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate is significantly different from prior matchups.
What’s more, Bernie Sanders is facing questions about his ability to go the distance as he recovers from a heart attack this month, and the clash in Ohio will be the first debate since House Democrats launched their official impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
In addition, two long-shot candidates, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, are slated to get spots on the debate stage after failing to qualify for last month’s clash. That has raised the total number of invited contenders from 10 to a dozen.
The debate, run by AT&T’s /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +0.60% CNN and the New York Times /zigman2/quotes/202090840/composite NYT -1.90% , is due to start at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday at Otterbein University in Westerville, a northeastern suburb of Columbus. It’s set to break the record for the number of candidates appearing on a stage at once, topping the prior mark of 11 that was notched by a Republican debate in 2015.
Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator, may be seeking to reassure her critics during the debate, said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri. McKinney said Warren’s message may boil down to the following: “You can commit to me. I am a safe candidate. I will be a strong candidate. Let’s rethink your notions of the safe candidate.”
While Warren edged past Biden in a widely followed average of polls last week, some centrist Democrats continue to worry about her policy plans that target Wall Street and other sectors. Party fundraisers “think Warren can’t win the presidency — and they know she represents a real threat to their companies and their tax rates,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AGF Investments, in a recent note.
Mizzou’s McKinney said Warren will have to be careful in terms of going directly after Biden, given how Democrats felt about attacks on him in prior debates by California Sen. Kamala Harris and Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary. The Massachusetts lawmaker also will have to take care in how she interacts with Sanders, as she wants to avoid looking like she’s aiming to “kick him when he’s down,” McKinney added.
For Biden, one key will be to “demonstrate to voters that he’s vigorously able to take it to Donald Trump” and also “stand up for himself, his family,” McKinney said. Republicans have emphasized the former vice president’s link to the impeachment effort, which was announced on Sept. 24 and is centered on how Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden and his son.
Meanwhile, the 78-year-old Sanders faces a “crucial moment” following his Oct. 1 heart attack, according to McKinney. “If he’s able to turn in a performance that shows us he hasn’t missed a beat, so to speak, that he’s the same old Bernie Sanders — aggressive, passionate — then that will go far to allay questions and fears that maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to run the course,” said the professor, an expert on presidential debates.
The Vermont senator made an effort Monday to act true to form, as his campaign unveiled a plan that promises to “put an end to the corporate greed ruining our country.” His proposal calls for giving workers 20% of their companies’ shares and 45% of their firms’ board seats, and it also would ban large-scale stock buybacks, return the federal corporate tax rate to 35% from 21% and require companies to give stock to workers who lose their jobs due to outsourcing or automation.