Pete Buttigieg, whose dramatic rise has seen him advance from little-known South Bend, Indiana, mayor to a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, is likely to face a tough test on Wednesday evening, with rivals poised to target him for political attacks in an effort to stall his momentum.
The fifth Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, marks the first time Buttigieg will face other White House hopefuls as a “top tier” candidate, and as voter uncertainty grips the unsettled primary field.
Buttigieg will be joined on stage by former Vice-President Joe Biden; Vermont senator Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren California Senator Kamala Harris; New Jersey senator Cory Booker; Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar; billionaire activist Tom Steyer of California; entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York and Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.
Biden has continued to maintain his status as frontrunner, based in large part on his enduring support from African American voters. But in the month since the last debate, Buttigieg has emerged as a threat in the key early voting state of Iowa, while fellow frontrunner Warren has seen her lead slip as she faces sustained attacks over how she would pay for her sweeping policy proposals.
The debate takes place amid the impeachment inquiry into Trump, and comes hours after the explosive testimony of Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union before the House Intelligence Committee. Sondland told lawmakers that he worked with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, at the “express direction” of the president, and that there was a “quid pro quo” linking Trump’s request for politically-motivated investigations into Biden to a White House visit.
At the same time, the already–crowded field of Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination has expanded, with at least one more contemplating a late-entry White House run.
The turn of events is evidence of widespread anxiety less than three months before the Iowa caucuses in February, which kick off primary voting for the nomination.
Of the candidates who qualified for the October debate in Ohio, only Julián Castro, the former Housing secretary, failed to meet the polling threshold for this one. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, dropped out of the race earlier this month.
To qualify for this debate, the candidates had to earn at least 3% in four national polls approved by the party or at least 5% in two early-state polls and received donations from at least 165,000 individual donors.
Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entered the race last week and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has filed to appear on the ballot in a handful of Super Tuesday states, in a sign that he intends to run.
Neither will be on stage on Wednesday, but their interest in joining the race at this relatively late stage is indicative of a growing concern among Democrats that the party’s frontrunners lack the strength to beat Donald Trump in the November 2020 election. Some believe Biden, 77, is too old, and Buttigieg, 37, is too young, while Warren and Sanders are too liberal. Harris and Booker, once viewed as strong contenders for the nomination, have failed to gain traction.
Wednesday’s debate, hosted by the Washington Post and MSNBC, was trimmed from a marathon three-hours down to just two to cover all of the major issues important to Democratic voters: healthcare, immigration, foreign policy and the climate crisis.
Six candidates – Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris and Klobuchar – have so far qualified for the sixth Democratic debate due to be held on 19 December in Los Angeles.
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