DETROIT — Democrats gathering in Detroit for a pivotal presidential debate will have to decide, once again, how to respond to President Donald Trump while presenting their own vision for the country.
Candidates are sure to use the high-profile setting on Tuesday and Wednesday to blast Trump’s recent string of racist and incendiary tweets and comments, first about four congresswomen and more recently about Baltimore, a racially diverse U.S. city that, like Detroit, has faced challenges. But they’ll also be under pressure to provide specifics about how they would improve the lives of Americans by lowering the cost of health care or protecting jobs at a time when the economy is showing signs of sputtering.
The second debate of the Democratic primary has higher stakes for a historically large field of more than 20 candidates, 10 of whom will face off each night. For several candidates, the debates will likely offer a last chance to be considered a serious contender for the party’s nomination. Tougher rules set by the Democratic National Committee are expected to winnow the race. To qualify for the next debates in September, candidates must raise money from more donors and hit higher polling thresholds — a bar more than half of the candidates are at risk of missing.
“Everything’s at stake,” said Jill Alper, a Democratic strategist who has worked on seven presidential campaigns. She had simple and direct advice for the White House hopefuls confronting questions about Trump: “protest and pivot” — and “pivot quickly” — to what they can offer American families.
The two leading progressives in the field, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, will be at centre stage on Tuesday. Warren’s campaign has gained ground in recent weeks, partially at the expense of Sanders. The debate could offer a high-profile chance for Warren to prove to Sanders’ supporters that she’s worthy of their consideration.
The night will also provide a contrast with more moderate candidates, such as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, poised to offer themselves as alternatives to the liberals.
Also on stage will be former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has repeatedly said Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism is bad for the party and the country, as well as Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, author Marianne Williamson and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who joined the race after the other candidates and did not qualify for last month’s debate in Miami.
Wednesday will provide a rematch between former Vice-President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who went after Biden during the June debate for not supporting federal busing orders as a means of desegregation when he was in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s, prefacing her comments by saying, “I do not believe you are a racist.”
Biden defended his record but appeared caught off guard by the exchange, a shaky response that could give voters pause about his ability to go toe-to-toe with Trump on a debate stage or otherwise in a general election, said Michigan-based pollster Bernie Porn.
“Biden needs to do better,” he said.