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5 things to watch for in Democratic debate Wednesday

Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden,

Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at the Oct. 15 debate in Ohio. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Saul Loeb

Ten Democratic presidential candidates are set to take the stage Wednesday night for the fifth debate of the primary election, though voter support has consolidated around four of them.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are expected to clash among themselves as they seek more secure leads while fending off attacks from the other six contenders still seeking breakout moments.

Political experts note that good performances in past debates this year haven’t yielded lasting momentum. But they warn that, by contrast, bad performances can do lasting damage.

Here are five things to watch for:

Public impeachment hearings

The debate takes place on the same day that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is set to testify in the impeachment inquiry, which since the last faceoff has entered its public phase. Sondland is a crucial witness on what President Donald Trump wanted from his Ukrainian counterpart.

The Democratic candidates in last month's debate, for the most part, presented a united front on the matter.

“This primary doesn’t really have differences on whether Trump should or should not be impeached for his bribery,” said Jesse Ferguson, a New York-based Democratic strategist, “but Wednesday gives candidates a chance to show Democrats how they would prosecute the case.”

Paying for 'Medicare For All'

The debate also marks the first since Warren released her $20.5 trillion financing plan for "Medicare for All." While she technically can claim she wouldn't hike taxes on the middle class, Biden argued that such Americans could end up paying when companies pass down the costs.

Warren should expect to be attacked from both sides, said Christopher Galdieri, a Saint Anselm College associate professor of politics.

“From Joe Biden, I think he’s going to say, ‘Look, it’s too expensive, people don’t want to get rid of private insurance that they like,’ ” Galdieri said. “From Bernie Sanders, it could be criticism without actually saying her name."

The Bloomberg factor

One potential candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, won’t be on the stage, but experts said he still will loom as a reminder that many see Biden as a vulnerable front-runner and the centrist mantle as there for the taking.

Adding to the pressure on Biden is the fact that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick threw his hat into the ring last week. Patrick is a moderate who, like Biden, is close friends with former President Barack Obama.

“Bloomberg and Patrick are in because they sense Biden’s weakness,” said Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College professor emeritus. “They think the question is where does Biden’s second-choice voter go.”

Courting black voters

Biden far and away has the strongest standing among African American voters. He had a 20-point lead among likely South Carolina primary voters and polled at 44% among black voters in the state, according to a Quinnipiac University poll this week.

Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg have struggled to make inroads in black support.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University associate professor of political science, noted that they’re doing events before and after the debate at historically black colleges and universities, including Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.

She added that she’ll be watching at the debate for “how reflective the candidates are and what they’ve learned about the policy positions that they’ve taken that, in hindsight, haven’t served African Americans all that well.”

Buttigieg's Iowa surge

Galdieri and Sherrill said Buttigieg likely will be a target of attack Wednesday night.

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has seized the lead among likely Iowa caucusgoers in two recent polls, one by the Des Moines Register/CNN and the other by Monmouth University. Momentum in the early states is critical and strong standing there is enviable, experts said.

"There's frustration within the Democratic field about Pete Buttigieg," Galdieri said. "I could see that boiling over. Everyone needs to win Iowa."

Sherrill said, "They think his support might be soft, they don’t want to see it strengthen. He’s the logical target.”

The November debate

When: Wednesday at 9 p.m.

Where: Atlanta, Tyler Perry Studios

How to watch: Live on MSNBC, streaming for free on MSNBC.com and WashingtonPost.com and their apps, free audio on SiriusXM and TuneIn

Moderators: Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC and NBC News, Kristen Welker of NBC News and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post

Candidates: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang

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