By Agence France-Presse
Frontrunner Joe Biden goes head-to-head for the first time Thursday with Elizabeth Warren, his fast-rising rival for the Democratic Party’s White House nomination, in a three-hour debate seen as a tough test of the 76-year-old’s stamina.
Ten candidates will take the stage in Houston as a narrowed 2020 field, including Bernie Sanders, the leftist jockeying for second spot with fellow Senator Warren in the race to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
While the top three Democrats are in their seventies, all eyes will be on former vice president Biden who is battling accusations that he is a gaffe-prone candidate past his prime, who could struggle during a grueling campaign.
The previous debates, in June and July, featured a dizzying 20 hopefuls over two long nights, with months still to go before the first votes are cast in Iowa in February to pick the nominee.
While most of them remain in contention, the lineup has been tightened this time around for the televised showdown airing on ABC from 7:00 pm (0000 GMT).
Bringing America’s diversity to the fore, the 10 debate participants are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian-American; seven men and three women; three septuagenarians and four candidates 30 to 40 years their junior; centrists, progressives and far-left liberals.
Addressing reporters shortly before the debate, Trump predicted that barring a “major mistake,” Biden would eventually clinch the Democratic nomination.
“It’s going to be one of those three,” Trump said. “I would imagine Biden would be able to make it if he doesn’t make any major mistakes.”
Trump has routinely mocked Biden — branding him “Sleepy Joe” and suggesting he has lost a step — as well as Warren and Sanders, but he struck a quite different tone when asked if he respected any of his would-be challengers.
“I respect all of them,” Trump said. “Let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage to run for office.”
Top three in command
Biden maintains a grip on pole position with 26.8 percent support, despite a noticeable dip in recent weeks, according to a poll average compiled by RealClearPolitics.
In a sign of the different currents coursing through the Democratic party, the moderate Biden will take center stage sandwiched between the two prominent progressives, Warren and Sanders.
There is potential for fireworks between Biden and Warren, who trails at 16.8 percent but is the one candidate who has enjoyed a steady rise in support.
Sanders, at 78 the oldest candidate in the field, is narrowly ahead of Warren at 17.3 percent support and has largely avoided clashing with his friend and fellow progressive.
A summer of verbal miscues — and an apparent lack of preparedness for spirited attacks by rivals in the first debate — raised doubts about Biden’s age and mental clarity, concerns he and his team have roundly dismissed.
He enjoys strong support in particular from African-American communities and from working-class whites who appreciate his blue-collar appeal and believe he is best able to beat Trump, a top priority for Democratic voters.
Much of Biden’s appeal comes from his eight years as deputy to Barack Obama, and Biden unabashedly made that case hours before the debate with release of an online ad in which he called his former boss “a great president” with “character, courage, and vision.”
Warren, 70, has electrified town halls and impressed voters with her extensive collection of policy platforms.
“She is the ascendant candidate,” David Axelrod, a Democratic analyst who was Obama’s chief campaign strategist, told CNN.
Early Thursday she released her latest plan, one that would increase Social Security benefits for all Americans by $200 per month.
While Warren’s stock has risen, the campaigns of others such as Senator Kamala Harris and 37-year-old South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have stalled.
For the second tier, including ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke, Senator Cory Booker, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Obama-era housing secretary Julian Castro — all polling under three percent — a breakout moment is critical to stay relevant.
Navigating between the leaders and the strugglers is tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, the only non-politician candidate, who is promoting a plan for universal basic income.
Beyond the economy, three topics — gun control, climate change and health care — are shaping up as defining issues for Democrats, and will likely be addressed Thursday.
Given the dramatic recent shifts in White House policy over Afghanistan, the candidates could also face questions about that foreign policy quandary.