LOS ANGELES (AP) — The evolving fight for the soul of the Democratic Party moves to California on Thursday as a shrinking field of presidential contenders takes the debate stage for a sixth and final time in 2019.
It is a debate set in the heart of the holiday season and overshadowed by Congress’ historic impeachment vote, raising the prospect that it may draw the smallest audience yet. But the stakes are not small in the broader tug-of-war between passionate progressives and pragmatic moderates who are battling over the party’s positions on core issues like health care, immigration, education and trade.
Seven candidates will share the stage when the event begins at 8 p.m. ET, but Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg enter the night at the very center of the high-stakes clash.
Warren, a 70-year-old Massachusetts senator, has fought for transformative policies to limit corporate influence on the nation’s political and economic systems for more than a decade. Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has emerged as a strong, if surprising, face of the party’s more centrist wing as he navigates his connections to corporate America, both in his work history and as a presidential fundraiser.
“There’s going to have to be some fighting,” Buttigieg said as he campaigned over the weekend, “but I’m never going to let us get to where it feels like the fight is the point.”
While Warren and Buttigieg will be among Thursday’s stars, the diversity — or lack thereof — onstage will also play prominently. The Democratic field is marked by wide differences in age, geography and wealth, but Thursday’s group won’t feature a black or Latino candidate for the first time this year. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is Asian American, will be on stage.
Diversity matters, particularly in deep-blue California, the biggest prize in the primary season and home to 1 in 8 Americans. The debate is set in Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s largest Latino population.
The state of play on the ground in California has largely mirrored national trends, with former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren clustered at the top of the field, followed by Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.
Three of the candidates who will be onstage are preparing to serve as jurors in the Senate trial of President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday became just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. All of the debate participants have endorsed Trump’s impeachment, but the delicate politics of the issue make it particularly dangerous terrain for the party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t sent the two articles of impeachment to the Senate, and any delay in doing so could complicate campaign strategies for candidates who would also be jurors. The Iowa caucuses formally usher in the Democratic contest in just 46 days.
Ahead of the debate, Klobuchar visited an affordable housing complex in Santa Monica, California, to roll out a housing proposal. She said she wasn’t concerned about the impact of an impeachment trial on her campaign.
“This impeachment proceeding is more important than anyone’s schedule,” she said.
Beyond impeachment, health care could be a leading issue during the debate. And suddenly, the candidates who support “Medicare for All,” which was a litmus test issue for ambitious Democrats a year ago, are in the minority.
In fact, only one of the seven Democrats onstage is promising to fight for Medicare for All immediately after taking office. That would be the bill’s author, Sanders, who is nothing if not consistent. The other progressive firebrand onstage, Warren, has settled on a plan to transition to Medicare for All by the end of her first term, while none of the other candidates would go even that far.
Most support a hybrid system that would give consumers the choice to join a government-run system or keep the private insurance they have.
Two candidates who didn’t make the stage will still make their presence felt for debate watchers with ads reminding viewers they’re still in the race.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro are airing television ads targeted to primary voters during the debate. Booker’s is his first television ad, and in it he says even though he’s not on the debate stage, “I’m going to win this election anyway.” It’s airing as part of a $500,000 ad campaign, running in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, as well as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. A pro-Booker super PAC is also going up with an ad in Iowa highlighting positive reviews of Booker’s past debate performances.
Meanwhile, Castro is running an ad, in Iowa, in which he argues the majority-white state should no longer go first in Democrats’ nominating process because it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party.
Both candidates failed to hit the polling threshold to qualify for the debates and have in recent weeks become outspoken critics of what they say is a debate qualification process that favors white candidates over minorities.
Also missing from the lineup is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who is unable to qualify for the contests because he is not accepting campaign donations. Even if he’s not on the podium, Bloomberg has been felt in the state: He’s running a deluge of TV advertising in California to introduce himself to voters who probably know little, if anything, about him.
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