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Joe Biden seemed taken aback when Kamala Harris went after him in the first round of Democratic presidential debates in Miami last month. This time around, his team is telegraphing some counterpunches.
The former vice president’s team has signaled a much more aggressive approach toward both Harris, a California senator, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who will appear on stage with him in the second night of this week's Democratic debates in Detroit, on Wednesday.
“I'm not going to be as polite this time,” he told supporters at a fundraiser in Detroit last week.
The rematch between Biden and Harris could be the marquee storyline. But it’s unclear whether they’ll have more memorable exchanges over the civil rights issues that got Biden in trouble last time or over healthcare, where Biden has been looking to go on the offensive against Harris and other “Medicare for All” adherents. Booker, who's also been sparring with Biden over his civil rights record, may also push himself into the fray.
The first night will put the race’s two progressive stars center stage, with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) shoulder-to-shoulder. With a bunch of Democrats onstage for possibly the last time, and candidates who are desperate for a game-changer, there could be some wild (and cringe-worthy) moments.
Here’s what to watch for.
Will Sanders and Warren spar with one another — or team up?
Tuesday’s debate will feature Warren and Sanders — plus a bevy of more moderate candidates desperate for a big moment. What remains to be seen is whether Sanders and Warren break their detente, or whether they end up pitted against some thirsty centrists.
Sanders has signaled he’s not likely to try to pick a fight with Warren. When asked over the weekend in Iowa what he expected from sharing the stage with her, his response was “intelligence.” Warren, similarly, hasn’t looked to take shots at Sanders.
The more interesting dust-ups could be between the pair and the rest of those onstage. Sanders’ Medicare for All plan — which would end private insurance plans — is an especially controversial issue, and it's a plan Warren has embraced as well.
Will Biden bounce back — or get bloodied?
Biden has recovered most of his polling numbers after a rough first debate, when Harris tore into his opposition to federally mandated busing aimed at desegregating school districts. He and his team have signaled they know they need to be more aggressive this time around.
Biden’s stumbling response had some voters wondering about his sharpness and age, and allies worrying that he needed to show the fire and acuity it will take to beat President Trump. More than any policy issue, that may be his biggest hurdle to hanging onto the nomination.
He’s been taking some practice swings.
Last week, when Booker went after Biden’s support of the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to a sharp increase in incarceration rates over the past two decades, Biden fired back by attacking the stop-and-frisk policing policy Booker oversaw as mayor of Newark. He and his team have gone hard after Harris as well, attacking her newly unveiled version of “Medicare for All” as impractical and too expensive. Whether Biden can be as effective onstage with both Booker and Harris gunning for him remains to be seen — as does whether he can handle punches thrown by any of the other candidates.
Last chance for the also-rans
Biden, Harris, Warren and Sanders will be center stage — but the candidates with less name recognition will be scrambling to stay in the spotlight. For roughly half the field, it’s their last chance to fight their way onto the stage for the next debates and keep their campaigns alive.
The first-night debate is the first chance for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to introduce himself. It also may be his last, a fate facing fellow also-ran candidates appearing on Tuesday: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), all are far from qualifying for the next debates.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has locked up a September debate slot but badly needs to right a flailing campaign that’s been ticking down in the polls. O'Rourke also needs to show he can hold his own after former Housing and Urban Development Sec. Julian Castro took him down a peg in the first round of debates. Centrist Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) needs more donors if she’s going to qualify for the next debate in September, while South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) has been stuck in the mid-single digits in most polling and is looking to fight his way into the top tier.
Oh, and Marianne Williamson will be there as well.
Night two will have a number of other candidates needing a big moment.
Castro got a post-debate fundraising boost and ticked up in a few polls after taking it to O’Rourke in the first round of debates, but needs to hit 2% in at least one more poll to be eligible for the next debate. The Wednesday rematch is his best chance to show he belongs onstage with the front-runners. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang (D) is also a poll or two away from qualifying, and needs a good night.
The thirsty night-two candidates are Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). None have the 130,000 donors and enough qualifying polls to make it into the September debates. If they can’t make a big splash onstage they’re likely done for — and they know it.
Cover: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., right, accompanied by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, to unveil their Medicare for All legislation to reform health care. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)