Moderate Democrats came out on the offensive in the second Democratic debates in Detroit, immediately taking aim at progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as they sought to contrast themselves from the two candidates at center stage.
The top duo center stage are flanked by many of the more moderate presidential candidates who do not share their full-throated support of “Medicare for All,” and the debate is serving as a visual reminder of the stark ideological divide within the party. Democratic voters are clearly still struggling with the question of whether to nominate a candidate far to the left, like Sanders or Warren, or a more centrist candidate who might have greater appeal to independent and moderate voters who Trump won in 2016.
Here in the heart of the industrial Midwest, the arguments of candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg may have more resonance for voters who are spooked by the colossal change that Sanders and Warren are proposing.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a late entrant to the race, who was appearing on the debate stage for the first time, noted in his opening statement that he had governed a state that President Donald Trump won handily. Bullock argued that he knew how to connect with those voters: “That’s how we win back the parts of America that we lost,” he said. “Showing up. Listening.”
Buttigieg noted that he is from the industrial Midwest. “We’ve got to summon the courage to walk away from the past and do something different.”
In an implicit swipe at Sanders and Warren, Klobuchar noted that she is from the Midwest, adding that she has “bold ideas but they are grounded in reality.”
It was an opening salvo that illuminated the stark ideological divide within the Democratic Party.
Since Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016, Democrats have carried on an internal debate about whether they must do more in 2020 to attract the more centrist, white working-class voters who cast ballots for Trump or if they should embrace a bold agenda that would dramatically restructure government by enacting proposals like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal.
The many more moderate presidential candidates who flanked Sanders and Warren are eager to raise red flags about the costs of their proposals like Medicare-for-All and free college.
Though Warren and Sanders have each indicated they will avoid attacks on one another because of their mutual respect, Sanders needs a jolt of electricity for his campaign in this chaotic field of more than 20 candidates. Meanwhile Warren has steadily moved into the upper tier of candidates in the last few months — at the expense of Sanders — making her a potential target on the Fox Theater stage in Detroit.
And those potential attackers could include Sanders. While the Vermont senator has been critical of the health care plans of both former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, he has so far refrained from attacking Warren.
The latest polling numbers have created some nerve-wracking hurdles for Sanders. The latest Quinnipiac polling shows that Sanders has lost 8 percentage points since June, sitting at 11% nationally. Meanwhile Warren has maintained a steady rise, jumping past Sanders to 15% in the Quinnipiac poll released last week.
Tuesday’s debate is taking place in Detroit, the largest city in the battleground state of Michigan. It’s a place Democrats are working hard to flip after losing it to President Donald Trump by a narrow margin in 2016 — the first time the state had gone to a Republican since 1988.
That setting may provide an opening for some of the lesser-known moderates in the race, some of whom are hanging on by a thread already as they fight to keep their campaigns alive.
Those candidates have more to lose on Tuesday as they struggle to raise enough money and momentum to qualify for the debates in September and October. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a late entrant to the race, is taking the debate stage for the first time since he did not qualify for the first Democratic debate in Miami.
Also on the stage on Tuesday are O’Rourke, Buttigieg, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Klobuchar, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and author Marianne Williamson, who will be looking to capitalize on her viral moments from last month’s debut on the debate stage.
Each candidate has their own objective when taking the stage, but some are under more pressure than others. O’Rourke, for one, is looking to reignite the spark he kindled in his race against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last year. Hickenlooper is looking to shine as he has been losing staff while struggling to build momentum for his more centrist agenda. And Klobuchar is here in her sweet spot — the industrial Midwest, where she believes she can speak to the voters who supported Trump.
Meanwhile, Ryan and Delaney will be looking to break out after anonymous performances in Miami’s first round of debates.