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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The misleading debate over Democratic debates

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) Andrew Yang, Mayor

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) Andrew Yang, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders arrive onstage ahead of the sixth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by PBS NewsHour & Politico at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif. on Dec. 19, 2019.  Credit: AFP via Getty Images/ROBYN BECK

The next Democratic presidential debate, the last before actual voting begins in Iowa, looms Tuesday, and the pregame talk has been as much about who won't be on stage as about who actually will participate.

The same debate-about-the-debate occurred before the Dec. 19 faceoff in Los Angeles, with the focus each time on the near or complete absence of candidates of color. Charges of unfairness — in the primary process in general and debate qualifications in particular — were lodged by Sen. Cory Booker, who is black, and former housing secretary Julián Castro, who is Latino and who dropped out earlier this month, and on behalf of Sen. Kamala Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who left the race in early December.

How, protesters howled, could a party as diverse in candidates and voters as the Democrats have apparently ended up with such a white final field? Six candidates qualified for Tuesday's showdown, all white — former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang debated in December, but missed the cut this time. Many critics alleged that the overwhelming whiteness of the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, skewed early interest, and that the Democratic National Committee's debate criteria mix of fundraising and polling results helped drain the field of color.

There is plenty to criticize about the primary process of both Democrats and Republicans. We spend way too much time and money electing presidents and other officeholders, way more than other countries, with no guarantee that we get better leaders. But this latest round of protests rings hollow. Because these candidates were in trouble even in their home states where supposed land mines presumably would be lesser factors.

Before Castro dropped out, the former San Antonio mayor was tied for sixth at 3% in CNN's December poll in Texas. In the last California poll before Harris pulled out, she was fifth with 7%. There is a paucity of polling in New Jersey, but in the most recent one, from Monmouth University in September, Booker was fourth, with 9%. None, in other words, had traction with the voters who knew them best.

As for moving South Carolina from fourth to first on the primary schedule so its large voting bloc of blacks would help candidates like Booker and Harris, Booker sat sixth at 2% in last week's Fox News poll in South Carolina. In the Palmetto State's last poll before Harris dropped out, she drew 2%, tied for eighth with, among others, Booker.

The whiteness of the narrowing field might have more to do with voter attitudes, racial or otherwise, than anything party poobahs are doing. That includes attitudes on electability, forged and possibly warped by this year's unusual circumstance — the urgency many voters feel to pick a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump.

That said, the process would benefit from truncation. How about partitioning the country into four regions and holding four Super Tuesday primaries, one every two weeks? There'd be no focus on any one state and no criticism of that state being too white, too black, too big, too small, too liberal, too centrist, too coastal, too Midwestern, too whatever. Limit the time during which candidates can spend by moving the primary season closer to the general election.

That would level and widen the playing field in a good way. What's in a voter's heart is another story.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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