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What to expect at the second Democratic presidential debate

It’s Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on night one, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on night two.

The second night of the second Democratic presidential debate will kick off on Wednesday a little after 8 pm Eastern. A live stream of the debate will air on CNN.com. You can also stream the debate on FuboTV.

After a Tuesday’s debate session was mainly dominated by a contrast between Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Wednesday’s will feature the other two top-tier Democratic candidates: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,

This sets up a sequel to the tense confrontation between Biden and Harris on busing and civil rights from the first debate. Biden has also signaled that he will critique Harris’s Medicare-for-all plan.

The other candidates on stage — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, business leader Andrew Yang, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — will also try to make their mark. But with debate qualification about to get tougher, they may not have much time yet.

Where the Democratic race stands before night two of the second debate

Joe Biden is still in the lead: After six months in which the former vice president had consistently led polls of the Democratic contest, the first serious test of his frontrunner status came on the debate stage in late June.

And by all accounts, Biden stumbled. Kamala Harris criticized his recent reminiscences about working with segregationist senators and pressed him on his opposition to busing for school integration. Biden stumbled in response, concluding by trailing off and saying, “Anyway, my time is up.”

The media declared Biden the loser of the exchange, and it elevated several long-running questions about his candidacy, leaving pundits to wonder if he could defend his long record to a changing Democratic electorate, if his age was showing, and if his poll standing was based far more on Obama nostalgia and name recognition than his actual performance in this current campaign.

And in the immediate aftermath of the debate, Biden did take a hit in the polls — his national support dropped from 32 percent to 26 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average. But he remained in first place. Then in the month since that first debate — a month in which Biden has for the most part avoided new controversies — he’s actually regained most of that ground (he was back up to 30 percent as of Monday afternoon).

So Biden remains the frontrunner, and the man to beat. Yet his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t spectacular, and his fundraising numbers weren’t particularly impressive considering his advantages (he raised less than Pete Buttigieg). So much may hinge on whether he can give an improved performance in this second debate — when he’ll be on night two, in a rematch with Harris.

Sanders, Warren, and Harris are the next tier: For the first several months of this year, the pecking order in the Democratic field in polls was clear: Biden was in first, Bernie Sanders was in second, and the rest of the enormous field was below them. That state of affairs has since changed, and the change unfolded in three distinct stages.

First, Sanders’s support has declined. Where he used to poll at 23 percent on average, he’s now down at 15 percent. Interestingly, most of this drop occurred in the weeks after Biden entered the race in late April — it is not a recent development.

Second, Warren began to rise steadily in polls in the weeks leading up to the first debate. She had a weak start to her campaign but built a reputation as a policy-focused candidate with a multitude of plans. Just before the first debate, she was neck and neck with Sanders, and they remain about tied today.

Third, Harris surged immediately after the June debate, in the wake of her exchange with Biden on busing. She rose from 7 percent to 15 percent support, putting her in a three-way tie for second place with Sanders and Warren. However, since then, Harris has declined somewhat, falling to about 11 percent — still above the bottom-tier candidates, but not quite tied with Sanders and Warren anymore.

Warren and Sanders debated on Tuesday, and while their performances were generally praised, it’s not yet clear how or whether they’ll affect the polls.

Lots of other candidates are running out of time: In addition to these top four candidates, there are 21 others in the Democratic field who have not had as much success. The two sessions of this week’s debate will feature most of them (though, since it was capped at 20 candidates, five will miss the cut).

But for the next debate in September, the DNC is significantly toughening qualification standards. So for many if not most of the candidates onstage, this week’s debate will likely be their last chance to make their case to a national audience.

The main event on Wednesday will be Biden vs. Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with former Vice President Joe Biden during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019, in Miami.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The breakout moment of the first debate was Harris’s challenge to Biden over his record on busing, in which she argued that she had personally benefited from busing during her childhood. The common consensus was that Biden came off poorly during the exchange, and he took a hit in the polls, at least temporarily.

Now Biden and Harris have been paired together again. So Biden will get a do-over — and that’s an important opportunity for him. He will have had ample time to prepare this time around and could make a more spirited defense of his record, or challenge Harris’s caginess on whether or how she would really bring back busing. Still, Harris is a formidable opponent who has damaged Biden already and will have the opportunity to do more.

Cory Booker has also rather blatantly telegraphed that he plans to go after Biden’s record on another issue: criminal justice. Last week, Booker called Biden the “architect” of the “failed” criminal justice system, saying the Biden-authored 1994 crime law “inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, Brown, and low-income communities.” (This is also an issue on which Booker can contrast himself with Harris, whose record on criminal justice reform has been criticized.)

Though Biden’s support among white Democrats has at times looked shaky this year, he’s consistently maintained a formidable lead among black Democrats — something Harris and Booker both hope to change.

Meanwhile, Biden is likely to bring up another key area of difference he has with top contenders: Medicare-for-all, which he opposes. Biden’s campaign has stressed the issue this month, apparently believing it separates him from other top contenders, and can be used to make a case for Biden as the most electable candidate (the one who won’t be taking away the private insurance some Americans like).

While Biden won’t share the stage with the cause’s main champion, Sanders, his campaign has already harshly criticized Harris’s Medicare-for-all plan, which Harris just released Monday.

Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said Harris was refusing “to be straight with the American middle class” about tax increases her plan would eventually require, and that her plan also “backtracks” on her previous commitment to Sanders’s own Medicare-for-all proposal.

On the surface, this was a critique about one policy proposal, but it also seems to set the stage for a broader attack from Biden on Harris’s character — that she is insincere, inconsistent, and politically calculating. (This is the critique Barack Obama successfully used against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign.) But it’s not yet clear whether Biden can successfully make such a case from the debate stage.

This is the last mega-debate

The DNC set relatively lenient standards for qualifying for the first and second presidential debates. The basics were that candidates needed to hit 1 percent or more in at least three polls or needed to have at least 65,000 donors. Even there, however, so many candidates joined the race that a few ended up being left out.

For the third debate in September, however, qualification is going to get significantly tougher. First, candidates have to hit 2 percent or more in at least four polls by different organizations between June 28 and August 28. Then they also need to have 130,000 unique donors.

So far, just seven candidates — Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Booker— say they have qualified for September’s debate. (It appeared Andrew Yang had qualified, but the DNC announced he could not use both an NBC/Wall Street Journal and an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll for qualification, since they were both NBC polls. He currently needs one more poll to qualify.) A few more will probably make it in as well, but the final roster will likely be nowhere near the 20 of the first two debates.

It seems likely, then, that the great winnowing of the Democratic field is about to begin. If candidates fail to make the debate stage, they will likely suffer further in polls and in fundraising. Many will likely exit the race — one candidate who’d gained no traction, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, already has.

The Iowa caucuses are still six months away, but this week may really be the last chance many Democratic candidates have to make their case to a national audience on the debate stage. The next time the party does this, the guest list will be smaller.