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Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the first round

Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the first round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Mich., on July 30. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski

After the hobbit Frodo Baggins escapes the Black Riders and survives the mines of Moria, two books still remain in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and ever-more-difficult challenges loom before Frodo can destroy the ring of the Dark Lord Sauron and bring peace to Middle-Earth.

The same is true of "American Ninja Warrior," Marvel superheroes and action-movie tough guys. To emerge triumphant, they must run a gauntlet that just keeps getting tougher.

So what on earth are Democrats doing with their presidential primary debates?

They started with low-bar qualifications that spread 20 candidates over two less-than-scintillating nights for each of the first two debates. Then they wisely tightened the screws, essentially doubling the requirements for September's showdown in Houston. Candidates must have 130,000 individual donors and at least 2 percent support in four approved polls. And it worked. Only 10 candidates have made it so far, and the deadline is Wednesday.

But October's debate has the same criteria. Rather than raising the bar even further by, say, requiring 3 percent support in four polls, Democrats are giving more stragglers a chance to continue fragmenting voters' attention.

The next person likely to qualify — and he might still make it to Houston — is hedge fund investor and impeachment advocate Tom Steyer, a billionaire who wants to get money out of politics, which he plans to do by spending $100 million of his own fortune. Yep, just what Democratic voters have been missing. Steyer needs one more poll, which his money will most likely buy by October.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard needs two more polls. She neatly eviscerated Sen. Kamala Harris over her record as California's attorney general in the last debate, but Gabbard will be done once more people learn about her curious refusal to unequivocally condemn Syria's genocidal dictator Bashar Assad.

If you've been running for six or eight months — or in the case of former Rep. John Delaney, more than two years — and you can't get to 2 percent in polls, you're already toast, especially if you've already been playing or trying to play on the national stage (that's you, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Mayor Bill de Blasio). Govs. John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee came to just that conclusion and dropped out. More need to follow.

It's not like voters lack for options. The 10 survivors on Stop-Trump Island — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Julian Castro, who made it last week — are a decent cross-section of liberals and moderates, men and women, old and young, racially diverse, geographically balanced. They don't lack for ideas. What they do lack is the opportunity to cut through the cacophony.

Besides culling their numbers, Democrats could help themselves by refusing to cooperate with inane TV moderators provoking them to launch barbs at one another. Spend the time explaining proposals. That's a better indicator of presidential timber than an ability to let 'er rip.

That also would help nervous voters desperate to beat President Donald Trump but confused by what they're seeing — Biden looking vulnerable, Warren and Sanders marching head-on into Trump's socialist tag, Buttigieg trying to recapture the magic of April, Harris trying to arrest her free-fall, everyone else kind of scrumming around. More time to focus on fewer candidates would be illuminating.

So congrats on qualifying for Houston, Julian Castro. But no offense: I hope you're the last.

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

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