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5 things to watch for in the next Democratic debate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders will share the stage with nine other candidates at Tuesday's debate. Credit: AP

The field of Democratic presidential candidates has grown smaller, but Tuesday’s debate will be the biggest of the primary election.

Twelve contenders will pack the stage in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. This will be the fourth debate. Earlier ones this year had featured 20 total candidates over two nights with only 10 facing off at a time.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who have pulled far away from the pack in recent polling, will be at center stage as the contest's current leaders.

It will be the first debate for California billionaire Tom Steyer, a late entry to the primary, but likely to be the last for a handful of others. The polling and fundraising thresholds to qualify for the November debate were raised.

It also will the first debate since House Democrats began an impeachment inquiry into Republican President Donald Trump.

Here are five things to watch for Tuesday night:

Impeachment talk

The investigations into whether Trump abused his office in requesting that Ukraine deliver him dirt on Biden has roiled Washington, dominated the news cycles and forced the candidates to stake out clear positions.

Warren called last April for an impeachment process after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She tweeted in favor for impeachment itself on Sept. 24, the same day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the inquiry.

Biden had resisted calls for impeachment but forcefully voiced his support for it for the first time on Wednesday in a Rochester, New Hampshire, speech.

Biden and Ukraine

Trump and his allies allege that Biden shielded his son from investigation when the then-vice president advocated for the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor. Biden’s son Hunter had been working for a Ukrainian energy firm under probe by that prosecutor. But much of the West had wanted the same prosecutor ousted because he turned a blind eye to corruption, and no evidence has emerged of illegality by the Bidens.

Still, Biden has been left to defend himself when he could be talking about his policy proposals.

Biden labeled Trump’s attack a “smear” in his recent New Hampshire speech, also saying the president “violated his oath of office, betrayed this nation and committed impeachable acts.”

Biden surrogate Terry Shumaker, a former U.S. ambassador, pointed to the remarks as evidence that the candidate can effectively stand up to Trump. “The president truly did choose the wrong guy to pick a fight with,” Shumaker said.

Sanders' health scare

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was hospitalized last week for chest pains. His campaign acknowledged two days later that he had suffered a heart attack.

The scare immediately raised questions about whether Sanders, 78, is physically fit enough to handle the grueling pace of the campaign trail and, if elected, the presidency. He faces calls for the release of his medical records, which he said would come at “the appropriate time.”

But Sanders also has used his experience to double down on the need to implement his Medicare For All plan, saying he was lucky enough to have good health care when others do not.

Sanders surrogate New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal (D-Brooklyn) said debate watchers can expect "an invigorated Bernie Sanders," a healthy candidate to match a healthy campaign. Sanders raised $25.3 million over the past three months — the most of the Democrats — and over the course of his campaign has fielded contributions from more than 1 million individuals.

Attacking Warren

Warren's front-runner status likely will make her even more of a target to others on the debate stage, political experts said.

The senator faced scrutiny last week for inconsistencies in her account of being pushed out of her teaching job at 22 when she was “visibly pregnant.” She responded that her description of the situation changed over time as she grew more comfortable discussing discrimination.

Warren early in her campaign confronted criticism over her claim of Native American ancestry. Opponents then pointed out that Warren, a far-left candidate, formerly was a registered Republican. And Biden in his New Hampshire speech said he was more than a "planner," a dig at her "I have a plan for that" slogan.

"Most things that are intended to be attacks on her actually make her stronger," argued Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Committee Campaign, whose "Switch to Warren" initiative seeks to highlight how voters have come to support her after hearing her speak.

Green said the pregnancy episode led many to air their own stories of discrimination, that the "she was a Republican" attack signaled to people that she can work across the aisle, and that the "planner" line reminded voters of her strength in policy.

Back of the pack

Those candidates onstage Tuesday who aren’t Biden, Sanders or Warren will be jostling for a memorable moment, political experts said.

Of the 12 set to face off, four — former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas — have yet to meet the criteria for the November stage.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang also can be expected to go to lengths to stand out to a national audience, the experts said.

“They will be looking just to score or just to stay relevant,” said New York-based Republican consultant Susan Del Percio.

Gabbard, for her part, said last week she may boycott the debate. She accused the Democratic National Committee and the news media of “trying to hijack the entire election process.”

The fourth Democratic presidential debate

When: Tuesday at 8 p.m.

Where: Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio

How to watch: On television on CNN or via livestream at nytimes.com and CNN.com

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