Democratic Debate Live: The Candidates and the Big Issues Tonight in Atlanta

Democratic Debate Live: The Candidates and the Big Issues Tonight in Atlanta

How to watch: The debate will last two hours. It is co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

Moderators: Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Kristen Welker and Ashley Parker.

Candidates: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Cory Booker, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and the billionaire Tom Steyer.

After several debates centered on the thorny details of policy — most of all health care — tonight’s debate has the potential to return some focus in the primary campaign to matters of race and gender.

The subject of identity has never been far from the surface in the Democratic primary, but it has seemed to simmer with new intensity over the last few weeks as a clear top tier of four candidates has emerged — one that includes three white men.

As Mr. Buttigieg has risen in the polls, several African-American and Latino candidates have expressed concern about his lack of appeal to minority voters, and Ms. Klobuchar has said Mr. Buttigieg was getting a pass on his thin political résumé because he is male. In Nevada this week, Ms. Harris warned that the Democratic nominee had to be a person who was “relevant to the diversity of who we are as a country” — a particular challenge to Mr. Buttigieg, but perhaps also a critique of the all-white top tier of candidates in the race.

As Mr. Biden has taken on Ms. Warren in sharply personal terms, Ms. Warren and her allies have questioned whether Mr. Biden’s criticism has been laced with sexism. The subject of gender arose in their heated clash over health care policy, after Ms. Warren suggested that Mr. Biden’s attacks on “Medicare for all” sounded like they belonged in a Republican primary and Mr. Biden blasted her worldview as “angry” and “elitist.”

“Over and over,” Ms. Warren responded in an email to supporters, “we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg have responded to criticism in different ways: Mr. Biden by dialing back some of his harshest language about Ms. Warren, and Mr. Buttigieg by acknowledging far more directly that he has work to do with voters who are not white. Whether they maintain those approaches on the debate stage, and whether voters find them convincing on these subjects, remains to be seen.

Although the former cabinet secretary did not qualify for tonight’s debate in Atlanta, Mr. Castro said he has no plans of dropping out of the race and looks forward to “beating expectations” in the Iowa caucuses.

In a phone interview, Mr. Castro criticized thresholds set by the Democratic National Committee for debate qualification. He said that by focusing on polling and donors with months to go before the Iowa caucuses, candidacies like his — which has been retooled to focus on social justice and systemic discrimination — have been unduly hurt.

“They need to be reviewed and they need adjustments,” Mr. Castro said of the rules. “It’s too easy for people to pump money to get onto the debate stage,” he added, though he declined to be specific.

Rejecting speculation that he would soon drop out of the race, Mr. Castro said, “We still have 10 weeks until the Iowa caucuses, and 10 weeks is 10 lifetimes in politics these days.”

Mr. Castro plans to watch the debate in his San Antonio headquarters, after spending the day touring black communities in Atlanta that are facing housing displacement. He said his focus on issues such as housing, police brutality and immigration has already “shaped the debate” and pushed other candidates to the left.

When asked what has hindered his campaign, Mr. Castro said that voters and pundits are tied to a model of “electability” that hurts minority candidates. He pointed to the blowback he received after a sharp interaction about immigration with Mr. Biden in a previous debate.

“The media ran with a narrative that I was attacking the vice president on his age, and if that exchange would have happened with a different candidate, I don’t think they would have run with that,” Mr. Castro said. “It was about policy.”

“The challenge has been,” he said, “the deeply ingrained perception of who is the most electable against Donald Trump.”

“People say ‘I love your voice and you should be on that debate stage,’” he said, “We’re working to convert those folks to make me their first choice.”

He talked down those who said he’d make a good vice president.

“I’m running for president. And that’s what I’m focused on.”

One thing to watch for will be which of the 10 candidates onstage will be the first to invoke the name of Stacey Abrams, the failed 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, who is popular across some of the party’s ideological divisions.

Ms. Abrams, the 45-year-old former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union this year and has said she is open to joining a 2020 ticket as vice president.

Given the fact that the debate is in her home state, the question is how many candidates will seek to win over the crowd with a reference to Ms. Abrams.

Since the last debate, former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has joined the race and the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg has inched toward a run, including filing for the ballot in two states. While neither will be onstage, both will be part of the political calculus of those in the spotlight.

It is hard not to view these late entrants as a judgment on the strength of Mr. Biden, who has occupied the moderate lane of the party. But a strong performance from him could send a message to Mr. Bloomberg.

The Patrick candidacy is also a statement on the other two black candidates in the race, Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris, whom Mr. Patrick sees as failing to successfully bridge the party’s racial and ideological factions.

One other big name not onstage: Hillary Clinton, who since the last debate has suggested that Ms. Gabbard was being “groomed” for a third party run, and that she is a favorite of the Russians. Ms. Gabbard, ever a debate wild card, has already gotten some political mileage out of the attack and could raise the issue herself.

This could well be the last time we’ll see Mr. Booker on a 2020 presidential debate stage. The New Jersey senator has not reached the threshold in any qualifying polls for December’s debate. Nor has he reached the 200,000-donor requirement, though an aide said he is close.

Since it launched in February, the Booker campaign has been about love and hope, qualities that are in short supply for his presidential effort among Democratic primary voters. While he’s made a favorable impression in Iowa — especially among elected officials and county leaders — Mr. Booker has not demonstrated strong support among the public.

So far just six candidates have qualified for the December debate, but Mr. Yang, Mr. Steyer and Ms. Gabbard are each on the cusp. Mr. Yang needs one more qualifying poll, Mr. Steyer must reach the donor threshold and Ms. Gabbard requires both another poll and meeting the donor threshold.

Yet unlike those three, Mr. Booker entered the campaign as an expected first-tier candidate. Dropping off the debate stage six weeks before the Iowa caucuses would be a disappointing end for a well-liked candidate.

Mr. Biden hopes he made you proud tonight — almost six hours before he took the debate stage.

The Biden campaign suffered an email snafu on Wednesday afternoon, when they accidentally blasted out his pre-written, post-debate fund-raising email hours before the debate began. It came complete with telegraphing a coming line of attack on Ms. Warren.

“I hope I made you proud out there and I hope I made it clear to the world why our campaign is so important,” Mr. Biden wrote.

And the swipe at Ms. Warren, who has made having plans a campaign hallmark?

“We need more than plans,” he wrote. “We need the grit and the resolve to get things done.”

An hour later came the follow up. The subject line: “Oops.”

“You might have just gotten an email from Joe about just getting off of the debate stage. That’s our bad, team,” the campaign wrote. “We know Joe is going to make us proud tonight. We were just so excited for it that we accidentally hit send too soon.”

His campaign hopes the email is his only “oops” moment of the day.

Mr. Buttigieg on Wednesday released tax returns from his two years working as a McKinsey consultant. He was paid $80,397 in 2007 and $122,680 in 2008, according to the returns. His campaign had made his tax returns from 2009 to 2018 public earlier this year.

Mr. Buttigieg has said very little about his time at McKinsey, and the documents do not indicate the nature of his work. He said he remains bound by a confidentiality agreement with the consulting firm but that he has asked for it to be waived.

Upon releasing his additional two years of tax returns, Mr. Buttigieg called on his Democratic rivals to “be transparent with voters by disclosing their income in the private and public sectors.”

Such a reference is a preview of a possible debate line of attack against Ms. Warren, who has done legal work for an array of private-sector clients. She has released her tax returns from the years 2008 to 2018.

Mr. Patrick says the first days of his newly announced presidential campaign have given him enough grass-roots signals to be confident: Voters are, in fact, open to his late arriving candidacy.

“What I’m sensing is not some openness to someone new, but an openness to me,” Mr. Patrick said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I kept hearing that I’m pragmatic in South Carolina.”

“They’re ready for big ideas. They love that and so do I,” he said. “But they also understand that to get those solutions, you have to work with other people and you have to understand that there might be more than one path to that goal and be open to it.”

Based on the rules from the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Patrick cannot participate in a debate until he secures several polls showing a baseline of support and hundreds of thousands of grass-roots donors. Instead, he is in Atlanta to meet with students at Morehouse College. The former governor said has watched “every minute of every debate,” before today, and has decided to jump into the race because he sees a space for a uniting figure.

Responding to questions, Mr. Patrick questioned two of the race’s biggest front-runners, Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden. Of Mr. Biden’s strong poll numbers with black people, Mr. Patrick said “I’ve thought all along that support was softer than it seems.”

“There’s more variety in that vote than is captured by simply saying ‘black people,’” Mr. Patrick said. He took issue with a line Ms. Warren has used in recent stump speeches — that if Democrats nominate a candidate without big ideas they will lose. Mr. Patrick zeroed in on the issue of health care, where Ms. Warren supports transitioning to a single-payer system. He supports a government run public option.

“Every single one of us is talking about how to deliver universal health care. And it’s absolutely absurd to say that one person’s method is unambitious,” Mr. Patrick said.

Mr. Patrick will need significant financial investment to scale up a campaign that can win the nomination in a short time, which has led to some speculation that he’s entering the race to play spoiler to the progressives in the race or bring about a brokered convention. He laughed at the suggestion.

“I’ve heard all of it and it’s gone in one ear and out the other,” Mr. Patrick said. “Anyone who’s paid attention to me over the years, both in public and private life, will know that trying to read between the lines is a waste of time. I will tell you what I’m doing and why.”

“I can’t imagine why anybody would want to begin a process as grinding as this without wanting to win,” he added.

Mr. Biden will celebrate his 77th birthday on the debate stage Thursday night. For weeks, his campaign has been fund-raising off of the event: “Joe’s birthday is soon and we want to give him a present he’ll never forget!” read one appeal from earlier this month.

Mr. Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., in 1942, and some voters repeatedly raise his age as a concern. Mr. Biden has said that it is fair to question his age, but often instructs critics to watch him in action on the campaign trail as he races through parades and jogs onto stages.

He is not the oldest candidate in the Democratic primary: Mr. Sanders is 78. And Mr. Bloomberg, while he’s only taken steps toward a run, turned 77 earlier this year.

After the debate concludes, many of the candidates are planning to stick around in Atlanta to campaign on Thursday, with a series of events that will put a focus on issues like racial justice.

Ms. Warren is set to deliver a speech at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black institution, that will highlight the story of black washerwomen in Atlanta who went on strike in 1881. Mr. Sanders has a rally planned at Morehouse College, another historically black institution. Ms. Harris is scheduled to attend a “Black Women Power Breakfast” at a hotel in Atlanta.

Five candidates are expected to speak at an event hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network at Paschal’s, an Atlanta restaurant with a storied history as a hub of the civil rights movement.

Those scheduled to attend are Mr. Booker, Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Steyer and Mr. Yang.

Astead W. Herndon, Thomas Kaplan, Katie Glueck and Alexander Burns contributed reporting.

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