Democratic presidential hopefuls gather for first campaign debates

Among the 10 taking to the stage on Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren is seen as the frontrunner

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator, who has run on a policy-heavy platform, has been edging upwards in the polls. Photograph: Randall Hill/Reuters

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator, who has run on a policy-heavy platform, has been edging upwards in the polls. Photograph: Randall Hill/Reuters

 

Democratic hopefuls vying to become the party’s nominee to take on Donald Trump in next year’s US presidential election are gathering in Miami for the first debates of the campaign.

Twenty out of a total of 23 candidates have qualified to take part in the first televised debate of the election season, taking place over two nights in the southern Florida city.

In order to qualify, candidates were obliged to fulfil one of two criteria – secure 65,000 donors to their campaign, including at least 200 individual donors, or obtain at least 1 per cent support in three approved opinion polls.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) selected at random the respective line-ups for Wednesday and Thursday nights, and also where each candidate will stand on stage – an aspect of proceedings not to be underestimated as candidates try to make their mark during the live televised debates.

Polling analysis shows that four of the five top-polling candidates have been allotted the Thursday night slot, making the second night arguably the more important debate.

Rivals

Among the 10 presidential hopefuls taking to the stage on Wednesday night, Elizabeth Warren is seen as the frontrunner. The Massachusetts senator, who has run on a policy-heavy platform, has been edging upwards in the polls. She will face rivals including New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke from Texas and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar.

Thursday night’s line-up includes more heavy-hitters. Chief among them is Joe Biden. The former vice-president has been the frontrunner in virtually all polls since he announced he was entering the race in April.

Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders will also be on stage on Thursday, as will Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year-old military veteran has outperformed in early polling, eating into some of the space previously occupied by O’Rourke.

But Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay person elected as president if successful next year, has been battling controversy in his home town of South Bend, Indiana, in recent days following a public outcry about police violence and racial tensions in the city following a fatal police shooting.

Biden has faced his own backlash after suggesting last week that his work with known segregationists in his early years in Congress was an example of political civility in action. His citing of the practice as an example of his willingness to work across the political aisle was seized upon by some of his opponents including Booker, who is African-American.

Gaffe-prone Biden

So far the African-American community – where Biden has strong support – appear willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though this could change. The episode underlines Biden’s gaffe-prone nature. Along with his record on women’s rights – his treatment of Anita Hill, a black woman who accused a supreme court nominee of sexual harassment when Biden was chair of the Senate judiciary committee – continues to dog him.

Clearly, it is Biden’s race to lose at the moment, and one of the most intriguing dynamics of Thursday night will be how far the nine other candidates go in taking on the 76-year-old former senator.

Biden record on race and women’s issues may be highlighted, particularly by Sanders, who has been the most vocal critic of his fellow septuagenarian candidate. Sanders, who is making a second bid for president having come surprisingly close to beating Hillary Clinton in 2016, comes to Miami fresh from unveiling his proposal to write off all $1.6 trillion (€1.4 trillion) of outstanding student debt this week.

Crowded field

Some of the policy issues that are likely to feature over the two nights are healthcare, trade and the economy, climate change and foreign policy concerns such as Iran.

Ultimately, however, most of the 20 candidates will be doing what they can to stand out in a crowded field.

With each candidate unlikely to have more than 10 minutes of speaking time when ad breaks are taken into account, this week presents a challenge for the presidential hopefuls as they set out their stall to the American public.

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