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Third Democratic debate: What to watch for as front-runners meet on one stage

The Democrats’ top contenders will appear on a single night for the first time.
Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are slowly emerging as the clear front runners to claim the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are slowly emerging as the clear front runners to claim the Democratic nomination in 2020. [ Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 12, 2019
Updated Sep. 12, 2019

The 10 leading Democratic presidential candidates will meet on stage for the first time tonight in Houston, Texas, the party’s third 2020 debate.

While the first two debates featured 20 candidates split over two nights, stricter qualification requirements mean tonight’s event will feature the highest-polling candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — on stage at the same time.

The debate is scheduled from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., broadcast on ABC.

Biden, Warren, Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris will take center stage, with Biden still the clear front-runner in a majority of polls. The quartet will be flanked by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, as well as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, tech executive Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro.

Several mass shootings and a Category 5 hurricane have occurred since the last debate on July 30, setting up climate change and gun control to be major issues.

Here’s what to watch for:

Biden vs. Warren for the first time

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are the two frontrunners in a majority of recognized polls. The two will meet on a debate stage for the first time ever on Thursday night.
Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are the two frontrunners in a majority of recognized polls. The two will meet on a debate stage for the first time ever on Thursday night. [ Associated Press ]

Most noteworthy to watch, both for their ideological differences and place atop the polls, will be Biden and Warren — two candidates who didn’t share a stage in the first two debates. The duo have a decades-long history, dating to Warren’s outspoken opposition to a Biden-backed bill intended to overhaul U.S. bankruptcy laws in 2005.

In the decade-and-a-half since, the two have come to represent different futures for the Democratic Party. Where Warren is pushing for an aggressive, progressive agenda, Biden is more of a moderate — marketing himself as a return to normalcy post-Trump — that often calls on his past work as vice president under President Barrack Obama.

In addition to differing in ideology for the future of the country, the two have shown differences in how they attack President Trump. In previous debates, Biden has largely criticized Trump for his behavior in office, while Warren has turned her focus to Trump’s economic policies, which she says are helping the wealthy and hurting lower-income Americans.

Will Biden continue to portray himself as the moderate candidate?

In the first two debates, Biden attempted to position himself as progressive enough to appeal to more liberal Democrats, while being moderate enough to beat Trump in a general election.

In stretching himself on issues such as health care and immigration, the former vice president seemed unsure at times of how far he should go. Sticking to his moderate beliefs may be even harder tonight as he’s surrounded by progressives, with only Klobuchar — who is polling the second lowest of the 10 candidates on stage — having run a center-left campaign that’s similar to Biden’s.

Harris and Booker have hit Biden hard in past debates, namely on his health care plan not covering all Americans, and likely will again.

Though not on the same stage, both Sanders and Warren criticized moderates at the last debate in Cleveland, saying the proposals by “some of their opponents” call for merely incremental change. Warren said “small ideas and spinelessness” could never win the White House back from Republicans, while Sanders said his critics were “afraid of big ideas.”

Virtually on his own in the middle ground, how Biden reacts will be interesting to watch.

Will there be a candidate breakthrough?

Real Clear Politics average polling information for all 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Real Clear Politics average polling information for all 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. [ Real Clear Politics ]

The debate will be in Houston, Texas, the home state of both Castro and O’Rourke, giving both a bit of a home-field advantage.

While the first debates have been forgettable for O’Rourke, he has picked up steam — in the polls and literally — since his hometown of El Paso, Texas, was one of the latest cities to fall victim to a mass shooting. In the days following the tragedy, recordings showed an angry O’Rourke demanding immediate change — and often using expletives to get that message across. If that anger and passion resonates tonight, O’Rourke could gain momentum.

Both Buttigeg and Harris are above 3 percent in a majority of polls but have struggled to gain steam throughout August, with Harris dropping nearly seven points since her peak of 15 percent on July 5.

Regardless of how any of the seven candidates outside of the “big three” perform, they’ll have a chance to build on any momentum gained — or redeem a poor performance — in October’s debates, which have the same qualification requirements.

The fourth debate is scheduled for Oct. 15, with a second night if needed.

Pre-debate reading:

What about Florida issues? We asked Democratic candidates your questions. Now see their answers.

[TARA MCCARTY | Tampa Bay Times]
[TARA MCCARTY | Tampa Bay Times] [ TARA MCCARTY ]

The Tampa Bay Times asked every major Democratic presidential candidate to weigh in on issues of particular interest to Floridians. Fifteen responded. Here are their answers, word-for-word.

Three of the questions are ours. We focused on topics important to Florida that we haven’t seen the candidates already address. The rest come directly from readers like you.

We’ve highlighted the heart of every answer. Click here to see what they said.

Donald Trump says ‘bad people’ from storm-ravaged Bahamas not welcome

From left to right: Ann Smith, 71, her granddaughter, Marlena Mazard, 12, and her daughter, Lisa Romer, 51, arrive to the Port of Palm Beach aboard the Grand Celebration cruise ship from Freeport, Bahamas on Saturday, September 7, 2019. They are among hundreds of Bahamians that left the island after Hurricane Dorian devastated their homes.
From left to right: Ann Smith, 71, her granddaughter, Marlena Mazard, 12, and her daughter, Lisa Romer, 51, arrive to the Port of Palm Beach aboard the Grand Celebration cruise ship from Freeport, Bahamas on Saturday, September 7, 2019. They are among hundreds of Bahamians that left the island after Hurricane Dorian devastated their homes. [ MATIAS J. OCNER ]

President Donald Trump said on Monday that Bahamian evacuees seeking refuge in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Dorian need “totally proper documentation” to enter the country despite his own Customs and Border Patrol head saying otherwise just two hours earlier.

The inconsistency fueled confusion that started Sunday night when a group of Bahamian refugees were blocked from boarding a ferry bound for Fort Lauderdale. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have asked the White House to clarify its policy as tens of thousands board ships and planes bound for Florida.

“Everybody needs totally proper documentation,” Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House. “The Bahamas has some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there. I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

Read the full story here.

PolitiFact: Andrew Yang revives debunked claim about Green New Deal killing air travel

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Andrew Yang speaks at the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Democratic presidential candidate businessman Andrew Yang speaks at the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) [ ROBERT F. BUKATY | AP ]

When asked about the Green New Deal during CNN’s climate change town hall, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said he embraced the plan, with one caveat: Its deadline for ending air travel is too tight, he said.

“The only issue I have with the Green New Deal is the timing of the timeline,” Yang said. “I mean, they are right that we need to take urgent action, but the timeline that they put out there would do away with commercial air travel and a lot of other things in a particular time frame, that, if we have a little bit more time, we can head in the same direction and achieve most of the same value.”

But Yang got his facts mixed up. The Green New Deal makes no mention of air travel, much less doing away with it.

Read the full story here.

Follow on Twitter

A lot can happen in a three-hour debate. To get the most up-to-date news while the candidates debate, follow our reporters on Twitter.

Steve Contorno, Tampa Bay Times Political Editor: @scontorno

Emily L. Mahoney, Governor, Education Policy Reporter: @mahoneysthename

Lawrence Mower, Tallahassee Bureau Reporter: @lmower3

Josh Fiallo, Times Digital Producer: @byjoshfiallo

Michael Van Sickler, Government & Politics editor: @mikevansickler

Alex Daughtery, Washington Correspondent: @alextdaughtery

David Smiley, Political Reporter: @newsbysmiley

PolitiFact, Fact Checker: @politifact

Tampa Bay Times: @tb_times