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What's at stake for the Democratic candidates onstage in Tuesday's debate?

Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The Democratic presidential field is set to have its smallest and potentially most influential debate yet. It could also become among the most contentious if candidates bring their campaigns' offstage issues onstage.

On Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST, six candidates are slated to gather at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, to slug it out less than three weeks before the first-in-the-nation caucuses in that state.

Gone are the two-night, 10-candidates-at-a-time spectacles that marked the earliest debate rounds of the Democratic contest last year. This two-hour debate will feature former Vice President Joe Biden; former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and billionaire activist Tom Steyer.

With fewer candidates onstage, there will be more time for each to spar, and one of the biggest questions in Democratic politics this week is whether the Sanders and Warren campaigns will escalate their spats with each other. Warren blasted Sanders for sending volunteers out to "trash" her after his campaign reportedly circulated talking points aimed at Warren supporters, alleging she does not bring new voters into the process. Sanders, accused of telling Warren in a 2018 closed-door meeting that a woman couldn't win the presidency, responded to the anonymously sourced report by saying Warren's staffers were lying.

This will be the first debate round in which all the participants are white. A dozen Democrats are still campaigning, and notable names missing from the stage include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and billionaire former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey dropped out of the contest on Monday.

The Democratic Party set the highest bar yet to qualify for this debate. Candidates must have reached at least 5% support since Nov. 14 in at least four national or early-state polls, or at least 7% support in two state polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada. Candidates must have also secured donations from at least 225,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 1,000 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states, territories or the District of Columbia.


Yang and Booker met the donor threshold but fell short in polls. Booker got eight candidates to sign a request to the party to lower the qualification thresholds; that didn't happen. Yang offered to help fund the cost of more polling, and on Saturday his campaign put out a statement complaining about the Democratic National Committee's process and saying Yang's camp had commissioned its own polls showing him at 5% in Nevada and New Hampshire.

Bloomberg, who is self-funding his campaign and spending massively on paid staff and television advertising, met the poll qualification but is not accepting contributions and so did not meet the donor threshold. Gabbard, who threatened to boycott previous debates, alleging that the party and the media were "rigging the election," met neither requirement.

Many potential Iowa caucusgoers remain undecided in their choice of which candidate to support. A particularly strong or weak performance from a candidate could bring welcome momentum or unwelcome peril in the final weeks before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. And, of course, what makes Iowa so attractive is that a big win in the Hawkeye State could give a successful candidate more credibility with undecided voters in other states.

But not to worry: If you love debates, there are plenty more coming -- in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 7; in Las Vegas on Feb. 19; and in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25.


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