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20 Candidates Will Face Off During 2nd Democratic Debates In Detroit


This week - round two. Democratic presidential candidates will pack a debate stage once again over two nights. There will be 20 contenders overall in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the field could start to shrink dramatically after that. So let's hear from NPR's team covering the 2020 Democratic campaign. Political correspondent Scott Detrow and Asma Khalid, hi to you both.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with, of course, Joe Biden. He did not have an impressive performance at the last debate, but he is still the best-known candidate as the former VP - all the polls show that. Do you think he's going to adopt a different tactic, shake it up this week? Scott.

DETROW: I think so, and you can see that in the way that he's treating things right now very differently. Going into that last debate, Biden's camp was giving the message that he's going to stay above the fray. He's the front-runner here and, of course, Kamala Harris went after him hard for his past opposition to federal busing policies. And even as he remains the top-polling candidate, as you said, he did lose a lot of momentum. This came up yet again in a recent appearance that Biden made on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show."


JOE BIDEN: I think I saw her, we - in passing. I think at the fish fry for Jim Clyburn and said hi to her. And look - we were - no, and I'm serious. Look, we - I thought we were friends. And we - I hope we still will be.

DETROW: And he may hope that, but Biden has been criticizing Harris a lot. He's been criticizing New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, as well. And he told a group of supporters at a fundraiser this week I'm not going to be so polite this time on the debate stage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Asma, what do you see?

KHALID: So Joe Biden does certainly have some questions around race and some of the policies that he's put forward over the years. And this is something that came up this week when I was at the NAACP, in part, because Biden put out a criminal justice reform plan. And Cory Booker basically said, look; it's great that Biden has come out with this plan, but where was he all these years before he was running for president?


CORY BOOKER: For a guy who helped to be an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country.

KHALID: And to me, what's really interesting is since then we've heard Joe Biden come back at Cory Booker and question his record on race while he was the mayor of Newark. So I can expect that we're going to hear more on this issue. And one of the other things that's really interesting is, you know, Joe Biden has kind of come to the top in the Democratic field because of this notion of electability - him being potentially the best candidate who could beat Donald Trump. This week, we also heard Cory Booker hit at him at this notion of electability and say, well, look; you know, when we talk about who's electable, we're not really asking African American voters and we should be because they're the - one of the strongest key voting blocs in the Democratic Party.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do we know who African American voters at this point are behind?

DETROW: Well, at the moment, Joe Biden still has a wide lead over every other candidate when it comes to voters of color, African American voters depending on the polling question. I mean, Kamala Harris has gained a lot of support in that group in the last few weeks since the last debate. But still, overwhelmingly Biden has that edge. And as part of this back and forth continued last week, one of Biden's top advisers tweeted out those polls highlighting how many more black voters support Joe Biden right now than Cory Booker.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it seems the strategy would have to be for these candidates taking Joe Biden down.

DETROW: Which is so interesting because there are 24 candidates right now and yet almost everybody is focused on Biden, whether it's attacking his views on health care, that more moderate approach he's trying to take, or cutting into this electability argument. I mean, it's part of the territory of being the front-runner, but it also shows me that most of these other campaigns really do see Joe Biden as a vulnerable front-runner and feel like they can position themselves to pick up his supporters away from him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's all going to come on Wednesday, night two of the debate, but on night one, the two biggest progressive candidates will be next to each other - that's Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. So what are you expecting to see there, Asma?

KHALID: I think that's going to be really fascinating because, thus far, we have not seen Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren really kind of squabble with each other at all. They are known to be friends, but they have nearly identical policies. And so whether or not they actually argue on stage with one another, I think it will be a chance for voters to see how they can differentiate themselves from one another. And one of the ways thus far, and I saw this at the NAACP this week, is that Bernie Sanders will talk in sort of, like, aspirational, large-scale goals, visions that he wants overall to, say, tackle gentrification. Elizabeth Warren, when she speaks, speaks in a lot more sort of specific policy details about dollars and cents that she wants. And it'll be curious to me if we'll see that kind of differentiation on the debate stage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've talked about Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and, of course, Kamala Harris, but there are a few more people on the top tier beyond that. Is this a kind of do-or-die moment?

DETROW: Absolutely. These candidates who are struggling to break 2% or so in the polls, struggling to get fundraisers really need to have a breakout moment. I think the best example of how that works well is Julian Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary. He really stood out in the first debate. He got a lot of momentum out of that. Though, when we interviewed him last week, he seemed a little frustrated that debate moment hadn't carried him further.


JULIAN CASTRO: I believed that that we might see a bigger bounce in the polls than we did. We've seen some, especially in favorability and name ID and in some of the polls have gone above 1%, had one that was a 4%, 3%, 2%.

DETROW: But even as Castro seems a little frustrated with just that, getting to 2% is a big deal because that's going to be the cutoff to make the debate stage in September.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Asma, who do you see as really vulnerable?

KHALID: You know, I think there are a few candidates that need to really have a breakout moment. Those would include Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Beto O'Rourke from Texas and then Cory Booker. And whether or not their campaigns will admit to this, when you talk to supporters, there is a sense that these candidates need to somehow distinguish themselves in order to build some sort of momentum going forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Scott Detrow and Asma Khalid, thank you so much.

DETROW: Sure thing.

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

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.