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What To Watch For At The Democratic Presidential Debate


Democrats see blue in Texas. Is it a mirage? Or could the party really turn the Lone Star State in their direction? Tonight, 10 Democrats who want to be president will each make their case in a debate happening in Houston. NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow is there, and he's going to give us the lowdown on what to watch, what not to watch, when to turn away. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning. I'm in for all three hours no matter what is I'm told.

MARTIN: Oh, you're a good man. OK. So let's say you're not Scott Detrow. Let's say you're an American who has just decided to not pay attention until now. Now is the moment that they're going to turn on whatever device and watch this competition. What's the lay of the land?

DETROW: You know, I think the most surprising thing in this race is that Joe Biden has maintained a durable lead so far consistently ahead of everybody else. The day he entered the race in April, I was on MORNING EDITION from Houston as well. And I talked a lot of reasons that Democrats saw him as a very vulnerable front-runner, and so far, over several months, none of that has played out. And this will be the third debate in a row where he will likely be center stage. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Biden have really pulled away from others in a lot of recent state and national polls. This will be the first time the three of them are on stage together, so I expect a lot of the conversation to revolve around those three front-runners.

MARTIN: Let's take a moment to talk about the Biden-Warren matchup because, as you note, they haven't been on the same debate stage yet. They have had some long-held policy disagreements. Where - what are the big fault lines between these two candidates?

DETROW: Yeah, years and years of history on this. You can go back to bankruptcy law hearings when she was a professor and he was a senator, and she was very critical of his viewpoint on that. Today - very different views on things like health care. Biden is clear that he wants to build on the Affordable Care Act with a public option, more funding. Warren has said that she is with Bernie Sanders. She wants "Medicare for All" with no private insurance in that system. Though, it's notable she has not put out her own detailed health care plan. That's such an outlier. She has detailed plans for almost everything else at this point. So expect a lot of questions on that. Worth remembering - these first two debates had extended, extended sections on health care that got into a lot of the policy differences.

MARTIN: So we know a lot of Democratic voters, they say in polls that it sort of doesn't matter who the nominee is. They just want to make sure that President Trump does not win reelection. How does that translate to what we're going to see in the debate?

DETROW: We've been seeing this play out on the campaign trail. It's starting to creep into the initial wave of television ads we've been seeing. The Biden camp has been pretty frustrated by this perception in the coverage that this electability idea is the main draw to him. Though, it's notable that the first ad that Biden aired in Iowa was all about that - I'm the candidate who's best positioned to beat Donald Trump.

MARTIN: Right. That's the note he's been striking from the beginning.

DETROW: Exactly, exactly. You have seen other candidates at this point try to increasingly spend a lot of time responding to this argument. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker made that argument last weekend in New Hampshire.


CORY BOOKER: We can make the mistake that says, oh, we got to play it safe. This election is just about finding somebody who can beat Donald Trump. Let me tell you right now, we've got to beat Donald Trump, but beating Donald Trump is the floor. It is not the ceiling.

DETROW: At that same event in New Hampshire, Warren said don't vote for someone you don't believe in because you're scared. So one question I have for tonight is how explicitly or implicitly these critiques are made to Biden.

MARTIN: What about the other people? I mean, there's 10 candidates up there. We've only talked about a couple of them. What's everyone else going to do?

DETROW: Yeah. I think there is a lot on the line for the seven candidates who are not Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Kamala Harris, in particular, she got a huge boost of support after that first debate when she confronted Joe Biden. That has now fully faded away and then some. She has really dropped in the polls a lot lately. I think this goes back to that electability idea. So much of it is so many Democrats wanting to envision a Democrat who can take on Donald Trump. And I think we saw a big part of that is seeing that face-to-face confrontation. Are they someone who can be tough, make an argument on stage, go back and forth?

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow in Houston. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.