Ten Democrats will debate Thursday night. It‘s the first, and likely only, time before the Iowa caucuses that all the top tier candidates will be on the same stage at the same time. Voters will get their first opportunity to compare and contrast the candidates and then decide who is the best bet against President Donald Trump. That means this debate could either secure Joe Biden’s front-runner status or catapult Elizabeth Warren to first place.
For Biden, a bad summer seems to be leading to a bad September, too. After a series of fumbles and bumbles the Biden campaign is already lowering expectations about their prospects in Iowa, New Hampshire, and even Nevada. It is hard to be the front-runner if you lose the first two, let alone three, contests. Going 0-3 doesn’t scream electability. Remember, in Biden’s two previous runs for president he never made it past Iowa. If he falters or fails early, his campaign will end just like his last two runs.
Thursday night Biden will be center stage as the front-runner and a target. Most of the nine other candidates will make the former vice president the centerpiece of their debate strategy, hoping to make gains at his expense. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker will try to reprise their best previous debate performances using Biden as their foil. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Julian Castro may try as well.
Try as they might, it will likely be to no avail. None of the five has budged in the polls in weeks. Harris has dropped steadily since her first debate performance. And all of them, except Buttigieg, are starting to run low on campaign funds.
That leaves Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Let’s start with Sanders. His poll numbers have steadily slipped, too, and he seems to have settled into a ceiling in the high teens. While Sanders has plenty of money and will be able to stay in this race as long as he wants, it won’t translate into wins. Much like Trump, Sanders has a hard-core base of support that will stay with him no matter what but it won’t grow.
Sanders, like Biden, faces the risk of losing the first two or three contests and he is even more likely to lose the fourth, South Carolina. But the real blow for Sanders would be losing the primary in New Hampshire, the state he won by 22 points in 2016. That’s why Sanders will likely take a few shots at Biden Thursday night, as he has started to do on the campaign trail. However, even if Sanders lands some hard hits on Biden in the debate, polls suggest that it is unlikely voters will shift their support to him.
That leaves Warren.
Elections are won in June, July and August. Warren has won all three. She is the only candidate running for president who is hitting on all cylinders. Warren continues to climb in the polls, picking up momentum and support. She was the most well-received candidate before the New Hampshire Democratic Convention Saturday after a string of big crowds and big rallies across the country leading up to it.
Thursday night could set the stage for Warren to become the front-runner. She will draw sharp contrasts with Biden without the sharp elbows. As she stands next to him during the debate Warren will use her policies and plans to show voters that it is she, not Biden or anyone else on that stage, who can not only beat Trump but also undo all the damage he has inflicted on the country in the past three years and change the fundamental unfairness the majority of people in this country face economically.
Warren will come across as more ambitious in her plans for the country, with a specific, solution-oriented approach, and confident demeanor. And that is exactly what voters are looking for to beat Trump.
When voters see the side-by-side comparison between Biden and Warren they will start to move to the Massachusetts senator. The post-debate polls will show Warren gaining more support, which will likely accelerate. If so, as fall gives way to winter, we will look back at this debate in September as the event that launched Warren into the lead and on her way to the Democratic nomination.