Tonight, Otterbein University, located in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, will be the scene of the fourth Democratic presidential debate in just a few hours.
Touted as “the biggest presidential primary debate in history,” by The New York Times and CNN, the debate will feature twelve Democrats on stage (technically not the biggest debate in history, even in this primary cycle, since the June and July debates each featured twenty candidates over two nights).
The candidates will appear on stage in this order:
- Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard
- California billionaire and activist Tom Steyer
- New Jersey Senator Cory Booker
- California Senator Kamala Harris
- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
- Former-Vice President Joe Biden
- Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren
- South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- New York Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
- Former-Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke
- Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar
- Former‑H.U.D. Secretary Julián Castro
Tonight’s debate is expected to differ from the previous three, and not only because there are two more candidates on stage.
Firstly, there are the three leading candidates – all have seen their situations change dramatically in different ways since the last debate, which will likely affect the way the other candidates react to them.
The frontrunner, Vice President Biden, has found himself in the center of the biggest news story in the world, the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump. Trump’s attempts to undermine Biden’s campaign could encourage Democratic solidarity behind him, but he could also face tricky questions from the moderators and other candidates concerning his son Hunter’s business operations.
Elizabeth Warren has gone from strength to strength to the point where she is now clearly challenging Biden for the top spot in the polls.
However, being in the top spot might expose her to more attacks from her rivals than she has previously had to weather in debates.
Most dramatically of all, Bernie Sanders recently suffered a heart attack, a fact that will undoubtedly come up in the debate.
The question of age has repeatedly come up in the Democratic debates, and the apparent decline in the seventy-eight year-old senator’s health will make it harder for him to convince the public that he should be the one to take the fight to Donald Trump, let alone take on the grueling job of president.
Age is an issue that is sure to arise in this debate, as it has before. All three leading candidates are in their seventies, and candidates such as Pete Buttigieg (at thirty-eight, the only millennial candidate running) have argued that the Democratic candidate should be representative of the increasingly youth-driven party.
However, ageist attacks have not worked to date in the debates.
Eric Swalwell, who directly called on Joe Biden to “pass the torch” in the June debate dropped out of the race shortly afterwards. More recently, Julián Castro suffered a slump in his popularity after he made a dig at Biden’s poor memory. The candidates on stage tonight will likely tread carefully around the issue.
An issue where the candidates are unlikely to be so circumspect is the issue of impeachment. Impeachment is now such a big news story that the moderators are highly likely to deal with the issue first – mercifully sparing the audience from having to start the debate with an hour-long dissection of the candidates’ differing approaches to expanding Americans’ healthcare coverage.
Many of the candidates have already called for the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump and none have been shy about attacking the character and political record of the President in previous debates.
Calling for impeachment is unlikely to move the needle for any individual candidate, but the candidates agreeing on-stage on the issue may help to push public opinion further in favor of impeachment.
When impeachment comes up, it could give Tom Steyer a chance to make some headway – the billionaire (and newcomer to the Democratic debate stage) made his name in politics by funding and being the face of the Need to Impeach campaign. Steyer’s message feels increasingly prophetic as impeachment becomes increasingly likely. He would be wise to capitalize on it.
And then there’s Tulsi Gabbard.
The military veteran from Hawaii may prove to be something of a wild card; her campaign has become increasingly frustrated by what they see as “rigging” by the Democratic National Committee against “outsider” candidates, and Gabbard earlier threatened to boycott the debate before backing down.
Gabbard also has an unconventional history as a lawmaker, having personally met the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and supported right-wing Hindu nationalist groups. The other candidates know this record, and may feel tempted to bring it up if Gabbard attacks them.
Of course, all this is pure speculation.
To find out what actually happens, watch the debate on nytimes.com, the New York Times app, CNN and CNN.com. The debate begins at 5 PM Pacific Time (8 PM Eastern) and you can follow our live coverage here on the Cascadia Advocate.