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What To Watch For In Tonight's Democratic Debate


Ten presidential candidates will debate on stage in Atlanta tonight. And since the last time they met, a lot has changed in this primary race. We're joined now by two members of our political team. NPR's Domenico Montanaro, welcome back.


CORNISH: You're in Atlanta, right?

MONTANARO: I am not in Atlanta.


MONTANARO: But I am in D.C. and will be watching it with you all.

CORNISH: So who's in Atlanta? NPR's political correspondent Asma Khalid, I hope.

MONTANARO: There we go.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Yes, that's right.

CORNISH: (Laughter) OK, good - on the line Atlanta. So, Asma, we've had candidates dropping out, new candidates on the scene. Who's actually on the stage tonight?

KHALID: So there will be 10 candidates onstage. We've got Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang - just wanted to run through them all. I think, though, Audie, what's notable is also who will not be there. This is the first time that former Obama Housing Secretary Julian Castro will not be a part of the debates. And also, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke has also dropped out since the last debate. So that's sort of a change from the previous debates.

The last thing I'd mention is that, you know, since the most recent debate, we've also just had a new entrant to this race. That's the former governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. He, of course, will not be on the debate stage. He hasn't had the time to get the donors or the polls to make it on. But he's a new entrant. And also, there's talk about possibly the former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg getting in as well.

CORNISH: Domenico, heading into the last debate, it was Elizabeth Warren who was on the rise, and then that meant she got all the scrutiny during the debate. This time, we've got Pete Buttigieg getting all the kind of good press and rise in the polls. So how could that affect the dynamic of the race?

MONTANARO: Well, and anytime there's a rise, there's going to be that person facing scrutiny. And I think that's going to be Pete Buttigieg. Is he going to be able to stand up to the heat in this debate? I think it's going to be the first time that you see him targeted by some of the other contenders. Elizabeth Warren had been rising, as you noted, but she's seeing a real slipping in the polls given her support for Medicare for All and her plan having been released and lots of worries from Democrats, especially Democrats in the establishment who think that it's too far left and could cost them in the suburbs.

On the other hand, you've got Joe Biden, the former vice president, who'd been the one to sort of get all of the scrutiny for most of this year who's been sort of steady lately and probably won't see the same kind of scrutiny. And he'll have the opportunity to kind of go on the attack. So if he's - comes across as statesmanlike and steady, it could be beneficial to him, especially when he's not the battering ram - and, by the way, getting lots of goodwill off of these impeachment hearings.

CORNISH: Asma, that's the outside view. What are you hearing from the campaigns themselves?

KHALID: Well, I would echo what Domenico just said there about the Biden campaign. I was at a briefing earlier this afternoon with some senior Biden officials. And they point to the fact that the polling shows he has been remarkably resilient throughout this campaign cycle. You know, there are some candidates who have gone up and down. They point to his strength right now in some states like South Carolina and Nevada to say that he's actually has a fairly broad, diverse coalition. So they feel fairly confident coming in tonight.

CORNISH: On the issues, health care has dominated these debates. Now Elizabeth Warren has put out her plan to pay for Medicare for All without raising middle-class taxes. And she was pressed really hard on this during the last debate. What are you going to be watching for in that area tonight?

KHALID: Well, since the last debate, she has put out two plans on health care. The first was how she intends to pay for a Medicare for All system without raising middle-class taxes. She released that a few weeks ago. And in it, she specifies that she will not raise a penny of middle-class taxes. And then the other plan that she put out just last Friday was how she intends to transition to a Medicare for All system. In her view, that's a two-step process, so she would not fully move to a Medicare for All system until the third year of her presidency. And so what's really interesting to me is that, you know, now she has put out a lot of details. In the last debate, she was criticized for lack of details. But in putting out details, she has now given a number of other campaigns, a number of other candidates, fodder to attack her, I would say both from the left and some of the more centrist candidates as well.

CORNISH: And, Domenico, the impeachment hearings are going on. How does this affect what we're going to see on stage tonight?

MONTANARO: Well, look; I mean, lots of people have been paying such close attention. Today was a monumental day on Capitol Hill with the testimony of EU ambassador - European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland. The MP - latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll shows that more than three-quarters of Democrats haven't made up their mind yet on who they want to vote for, which makes these debate even - debates - even more consequential the closer we get to those early-state votes.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Asma Khalid looking forward to tonight's Democratic debate in Atlanta. Thanks for the preview.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.