The stage is set for a donnybrook next week as Democratic presidential candidates gird their loins for the second round of debates.
Candidates are plotting simple, straightforward strategies: get the other guy before he or she gets you.
Advisers and allies to the top candidates said the first round of debates showed they can’t afford to be caught off guard, as Biden was in his exchange with Harris over desegregation and busing. To that end, Buttigieg, working to overcome his mounting struggles with voters of color, is out with a “Douglass Plan” to help the nation stamp out racial inequality. And Harris, who opposed marijuana legalization as attorney general of California, completed her evolution in favor of legalizing the recreational use of it — narrowing a possible avenue of attack by pro-pot Cory Booker.
Those aren’t the only signs of predebate positioning. Elizabeth Warren, while warning this week of an economic crash, touted plans to help save capitalism — an unmistakable contrast with Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist with whom she’ll share the stage on Tuesday. Sanders has been playing nice with Warren while chiding Biden and others over their commitment to deliver health care, doubling down on his push for “Medicare for All.”
Tuesday night’s slugfest should feature the most fireworks, with Warren, Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg all looking to draw blood. All of them will be debating an empty chair as frontrunner Joe Biden will take the stage on Wednesday.
Biden holds a wide lead in the national polls and every other candidate will look to whittle him down to size:
“They realized all bets are off, the gloves are off. There’s no more ‘Mr. Nice Guy,’” Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, said of Biden’s increasingly combative approach. “You’ve got to be prepared to take a punch — and the question is, can you land a punch?”
Cory Booker’s criticism of Biden’s record on race is resonating strongly in the black community and the former vice president had better have some kind of strategy to counter it:
“If they want to argue about the past, I can do that,” Biden added of the two after one attendee suggested the clashes would make him a stronger candidate against Donald Trump. “I got a past I’m proud of. They got a past that’s not quite so good.”
On Thursday, Booker returned to his criticism of Biden at the Urban League, saying, “Don’t just tell us what you’re going to do. Tell us what you’ve already done. Don’t just tell us you’re going to be a champion for our communities when you become president, if you haven’t been a champion already.”
Biden is no political dummy. He knows full well that the farther left the Democratic field pulls him, the less chance he has against Trump. Disavowing his past support for law and order will win him few friends in the heartland, and give Trump plenty of ammunition to paint him with the same brush as the radicals.
Biden is in a tough spot. In order to win the Democratic nomination he must convince skeptical leftists he’s one of them while trying not to go lose touch with his white, working class base. In the end, me may end up pleasing no one and losing everything.