Democratic debate Part II: Clash of the front-runners

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MIAMI (AP) — The Democrats’ second presidential debate in two nights features most of the 2020 class’ strongest competitors — according to early polling, at least — none with more to lose than former Vice President Joe Biden, who has party establishment backing but faces an increasingly restive and liberal base.

The second 10 candidates face each other and the nation Thursday night in a prime-time confrontation sure to underscore differences along lines of race, gender, generation and ideology that are starting to shape the party’s winding search for a nominee to take on President Donald Trump.

Biden, who is 76, will stand at center stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with the fellow septuagenarian who is his ideological opposite: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist has pulled his party to the left on key issues, calling for a political revolution that would transform the private health care system into a government-financed one and mandate a redistribution of wealth.

Sanders’ appeal relies on emotion, often anger. Biden preaches pragmatism and relative moderation.

And they represent only two of ten views on the stage Thursday night.

Thursday’s debate lineup. (AP Graphic)

The showdown takes place in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year. In Florida, as in the nation more broadly, immigration has defined much of the political debate.

This week several Democrats visited a facility where hundreds of immigrant children are being held near the debate site.

Thursday night’s participants had the benefit of having seen 10 other Democrats the previous night. More than 15 million people watched the first contest, according to Nielsen Fast National Data. The viewership exceeded every presidential primary debate in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Together, the debates are the first high-profile step in a presidential primary process expected to stretch deep into next year.

The leading candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who debated Wednesday night, have shown little interest in attacking their Democratic brethren directly at the start of a marathon campaign. But an effort to undermine either Biden or Sanders, from any number of directions, wouldn’t be a shock.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris are among the better known candidates in the next tier. Also on stage: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York businessman Andrew Yang, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.

If nothing else, Thursday’s slate highlights the diversity of the Democratic Party’s 2020 class.

Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders, and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president.

Yet Biden and Sanders have received far more attention and shown higher standing than their less-experienced rivals. The party will have to decide whether it wants a candidate based on resume over aspiration.

The overall Democratic presidential field is so large that the Democratic National Committee split the candidates into two groupings through a random drawing. Thursday’s gathering marks the second wave of the first round.

On Wednesday, Warren stood out — on her own at times — in calling for “fundamental change” across the nation’s economy and government to address a widening gap between the rich and the middle class.

“I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren declared shortly before raising her hand as one of the only Democrats on stage willing to abolish her own private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan. “Health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights.”

While Trump is the ultimate target of many Democratic voters, the president wasn’t a major feature for most of Wednesday’s affair.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was one of the few to attack the Republican president, calling him “the biggest threat to the security of the United States.”

Instead of Trump, Democrats leaned into the issue that helped deliver the party the House majority last year: Health care. All supported the concept of providing universal health care, but they differed on how to reach that goal.

That same dynamic will be on display Thursday as well.

Sanders literally wrote the “Medicare for All” plan for universal health care that serves as a rallying cry for many liberals. Biden supports universal health care, but favors a softer approach that would give Americans the choice to join a government-run insurance program known as the “public option.”

While the difference may be modest — especially compared to the Republican fight against universal health care coverage of any kind — it has left Biden vulnerable to liberal attacks that he’s not willing to embrace bold change.

Indeed, Biden’s candidacy represents a throwback of sorts to the values that defined the tenure of President Barack Obama, whom he served as vice president. While some liberals were frustrated that Obama didn’t fight for more dramatic change in Washington, Biden often associates himself with a focus on civility and lack of drama from the White House in contrast to Trump’s turbulent first term.

In the early months of the 2020 presidential campaign, that has been enough — especially as Democratic voters make clear that their most significant factor in picking a nominee has less to do with ideology than electability. And so far, many believe Biden is best-positioned to deny Trump a second term.

Still, Biden has faced friendly fire from Democrats in recent weeks for his positions on abortion, his record on criminal justice, and his willingness to work with Republicans, even Southern senators who were openly racist.

Trump is spending the night in Asia for trade talks.

He had little to say from afar Wednesday night other than calling the first Democratic debate “BORING!” on social media.

In recent weeks, Trump has focused almost solely on Biden, whom he calls “Sleepy Joe.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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