DETROIT — The 2020 Democratic hopefuls are under extreme pressure to score points in this week’s debates or else face elimination from the race, with top party operatives predicting that as many as half of the candidates will drop out by September.
The showdown Tuesday and Wednesday will be the last chance for candidates to make an impression on voters before entering the political doldrums of August. At the same time, they have to clear the Democratic Central Committee’s higher bar to get into the next round of debates in September.
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the do-or-die stakes will make the candidates much more aggressive when they take the stage in the Motor City.
“There are a lot of people going into this debate knowing full well if they don’t do something to break out and gain attention, they won’t be in the September debate,” he told The Washington Times. “They’ve got to make their move now.”
Failing to gain traction at this juncture will force many in the crowded race to make their exit, he said.
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf agreed.
“This is the last dance for a lot of those folks. You are going to see a lot of them disappear onto the islands of political obscurity,” said Mr. Sheinkopf, a seasoned operative who advised campaigns for Bill Clinton and Michael R. Bloomberg.
The September debate in Houston will require candidates to meet a polling and donor threshold. They will need to have support of at least 2% of voters in four polls and 130,000 donors across 20 states, up from 1% in polls and 65,000 donors needed for the first two debates.
Eight candidates appear to have made the cut so far.
Winnowing the field would be a welcome development for voters overwhelmed by the more than two dozen Democrats vying for their attention.
As in the first debate, the number of candidates on the stage at Detroit’s Fox Theater is limited to 20. They were randomly divided into groups of 10 for each night.
The low-polling candidates are expected to target the top-tier contenders, who will be positioned at center stage. They will hope to follow the lead of Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who gained momentum after confronting the front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, at the first debate last month in Miami.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris will share the stage again Wednesday, with Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and seven other presidential hopefuls trying to elbow their way into the action.
Mr. Biden is determined not to repeat befuddled responses like those he gave when Ms. Harris criticized his opposition to busing to desegregate public schools in the 1970s.
“I’m not going to be as polite this time,” he said last week in a warning to Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, both of whom are trying to peel off some of his overwhelming support from black voters.
Competing for the limelight Wednesday are entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In Tuesday’s debate, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will be at center stage.
They also are the top contenders of the party’s far left, which opens them to attacks from a crowd of more moderate candidates seeking to draw a contrast, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
The low-polling candidates angling for a rise Tuesday are Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and New Age author Marianne Williamson.
Mr. Sheinkopf said the staging of the two-night debate highlighted what he called the “left problem” for the Democratic Party.
“The left has to consolidate, and Joe Biden has to try to survive. Those are really the issues,” he said. “Who consolidates the left? Is it Elizabeth Warren or is it Bernie Sanders. And if not, what do the other players who are on the left do to stake out their turf?”
He described Mr. de Blasio as a wild card in the battle for the left.
“Bill de Blasio will jump into this any way he can because this is likely his last moment on the national stage. He is the most likely person on the left to interfere,” he said.
Michael G. Miller, a polling consultant and political science professor at Barnard College in New York City, saw an opening for Mr. Buttigieg and other moderates to make a move on Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
“There is a lane for a candidate who can credibly convince voters that he or she can go toe to toe with the president in the Rust Belt,” he said. “By attacking Warren’s and Sanders’ plans as unrealistic, he can try to portray himself as a pragmatic Midwesterner who will get things done. He’ll get bonus points if he can do this with specifics to improve his branding.”
The candidates who appear to have qualified for the September debate are Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren, Ms. Harris, Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. O’Rourke, Mr. Booker and Mr. Yang.
Mr. Booker announced Monday that he had crossed the donor threshold, though he is still under pressure to get his campaign moving up and out of the low single digits in the polls.
“We’re building this campaign the right way, brick by brick from the grassroots up, and we’re seeing the results of that strategy as we continue to build momentum,” said Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie.
Mr. Yang declared Monday that he had satisfied the polling requirements by garnering 2% support in a fourth qualified poll.
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