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5 things to watch for in the third Democratic presidential debate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders will be at center stage at Thursday's debate. Credit: AP

The third Democratic presidential debate, to be held Thursday night in Houston, will mark the first time that the leading candidates will take the same stage on the same night.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will be at center stage alongside seven other contenders. Past faceoffs have involved 20 White House hopefuls spread out over two nights.

“It’s the first chance for voters in this country who have already said to pollsters, ‘These are the three people we think have the best chance against Trump,’ to see them side by side literally on the debate stage,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “And they can really take their full measure."

The historically large field has winnowed since the last debate in July, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) among those who bowed out of the race. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did not qualify for the faceoff, though the third New Yorker in the primary, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, did.

Here are five things to watch for in Thursday’s debate:

A consolidated field

National polls in recent weeks have shown only Biden, Warren or Sanders with double-digit support, and about 60 percent of likely primary voters support one of the three.

“Time is running out for the second-tier candidates,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “Voters are consolidating and feeling comfortable with that top three, so to get into the top three you need to have a debate moment that will have lasting impact.”

Strong performances by the low-polling candidates are especially important in soliciting contributions ahead of the Sept. 30 quarterly fundraising deadline. “People like to back a winner, and success begets success,” Kapolczynski said.

The electability debate

Biden has staked his campaign on electability as a centrist who can appeal across party lines, and Warren has worked to show she, too, could defeat President Donald Trump, albeit with a progressive approach from the far left.

Warren “will draw sharp contrasts without the sharp elbows,” because she has yet to directly confront the other Democratic candidates, Marsh said. She’ll show voters how she is different from Biden “by just talking about herself and her policy and her plans,” Marsh said.

The senator, whose support has climbed steadily in the polls, appeared to address her electability last weekend at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s state convention.

“There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared.”

Gaffes by Biden?

Biden has made a series of gaffes on the campaign trail, misspeaking and conflating stories. After The Washington Post highlighted his telling of a false war story, he told National Public Radio: “The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making.”

Kapolczynski said, “When a candidate stumbles, it creates doubts in voters’ minds. And doubt is the first step to changing your mind about a candidate.”

She and others noted, however, that Biden maintains his lead in the polls despite the gaffes.

Shannon Bow O’Brien, a University of Texas at Austin professor of politics, said, “Verbal off-the-cuff inappropriateness is different than senior moments. Senior moments will hurt him. Saying mildly inappropriate things — I hate to say it — can make him come off as more authentic to voters.”

Harris' slump

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) saw her polling numbers and her fundraising take off following the first Democratic debate in June, when she attacked Biden for his record on race. But the bump turned out just to be a blip, and Harris has had a slow summer stuck in the low single digits.

“Voters like Harris’ feisty prosecutorial persona, so when she questions Barr or Kavanaugh or she takes on Joe Biden in the debate, voters imagine her standing up to Trump,” Kapolczynski said, referencing the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings featuring Attorney General William Barr and then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“If we see more of that in the debate this week, she could see a bump in the polls,” Kapolczynski said. “The challenge for her is sustaining it.”

Gun reform

Texas, the host state of the debate, saw two mass shootings in August, one in El Paso and the second in Midland and Odessa. And among the 10 candidates who will be onstage are two Texans, Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman, and Julián Castro, a former U.S. Housing Department secretary.

Expanding background checks, banning assault weapons and other gun safety measures are being debated on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers returned this week after a summer recess, and gun reform is also expected to be a topic at Thursday’s debate.

“Gun safety is now a kitchen-table issue for voters, and candidates need to be having a conversation about their plans for tackling the emergency,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun safety advocacy group founded by shooting survivor and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

3rd Democratic presidential debate

When: 8 to 11 p.m. Thursday

Where: Texas Southern University in Houston

How to watch: On TV on ABC and Univision or via livestream on the ABC app,, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms

Moderators: George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Linsey Davis and Jorge Ramos

Did you know? Next month's debate — the fourth of the primary — is set to stretch over two nights because California billionaire activist Tom Steyer has qualified as the 11th debater. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is also close to qualifying.

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