Joe vs. Liz could be the marquee match up Democrats have been waiting for.
Front-runner Joe Biden was set to appear on a debate stage with Sen. Elizabeth Warren Thursday night for the first time in the 2020 campaign, giving voters their best chance yet to size up their options for the coming battle to unseat President Trump.
The former vice president hopes to solidify his standing as the Democrat with the best chance of ousting Trump by wrapping himself in the mantle of President Barack Obama.
Warren is seeking to keep her star rising with the progressive wing of the party by delivering another engaging “I got a plan for that” performance.
After battling in separate rounds of the first two debates, the pair are jousting head-to-head for the first time in the trimmed-down debate field in front of an audience at Texas Southern University, a historically black school in Houston.
Warren, 70, who has risen steadily in polls for several months now, has so far avoided sparring with rivals, focusing instead on introducing herself to voters as a plain-spoken fighter who is not afraid to take on Trump.
She may be tempted to try to take a swing at Biden now that they are standing next to one another in front of millions of Democratic voters, perhaps by accusing him of being too cozy with Wall Street money men.
Biden, 76, may also try to stay on the offensive by attacking Warren, possibly by branding her as an out-of-touch Harvard professor who was a Republican well into the 1990s. He needs to avoid stumbling into one of his trademark gaffes that remind voters of his age and make them question his ability to go toe-to-toe with Trump.
In a possible preview of their showdown, Biden tweeted out a video trumpeting Obama as an “extraordinary man (and) an extraordinary president.” Warren rolled out an ambitious new plan to expand Social Security benefits.
Among other intriguing story lines of the debate:
Which Kamala will show up? Harris made a big impression in the first debate by taking down Biden in a riveting confrontation over busing to achieve school desegregation. But the California senator flopped in the second one with a muddled defense of her confusing health plan.
Sanders rallies the left. Bernie Sanders has been written off by pundits, but he is still locked in a fight with Warren for second place and most polls show he could beat Trump handily. If he sticks to his lefty script and Warren slips, he could be right where he wants to be as the campaign starts to get real.
Can Mayor Pete, Cory or Beto break through? The grown ups only debate format gives Buttigieg, Booker and O’Rourke a chance to rumble with the big boys (and girls). But it remains to be seen if any of them has the mojo to move the needle in the polls, where all of them are stuck in the mid-single digits.
Yang warfare. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has been a breath of fresh air with with his tie-free style and pitch for his 1,000 bucks-a-month guaranteed income plan. It’s a good bet he’ll roll out his “I’m an Asian guy who likes math” laugh line again.
Bill’s gone (and probably forgotten). Mayor Bill de Blasio failed to make the cut for the debate. He’s watching from Gracie Mansion with his family but it’s not clear many voters will miss Hizzoner, who is polling around 0%.
The debate airs on ABC in English and on Univision with Spanish subtitles. Candidates were warned against cursing after O’Rourke in particular has dropped F-bombs on the campaign trail.
Trump, who is in Baltimore for a meeting with GOP lawmakers, said he won’t watch the debate live and will instead catch a “re-run” after he returns to Washington. But don’t be surprised if the president takes to Twitter to mock Biden or Warren in real time.
It’s worth remembering that the first two debates (really four since the unwieldy field was split in two) failed to change the dynamic of the race much.
Biden has remained the front-runner since he entered the race in April. Despite being dinged a couple of times, he has maintained a commanding lead among black voters and is considered the one most likely to beat Trump by a wide margin.
Warren has risen steadily in the polls, rising from the middle of the pack to become Biden’s main rival on his left flank.
Sanders has slipped a bit from the No. 2 position in part because Warren has stolen some of his thunder with progressive and better-educated voters.
Buttitieg and Harris have each had boomlets of support but they have failed to cement a spot in the top tier.
The next debate is set for October and could (gulp) revert to the dreaded two-night format.
That’s because, for reasons that remain inscrutable, the Democratic National Committee set the same standards of polling and donor numbers for that debate as Thursday night’s contest, meaning a handful of fringe candidates could make the stage. Even De Blasio has a slim chance of getting out of Gracie for that one.