All-white Democratic debate set to grapple with Trump and race in Detroit

Subplots abound as top-tier progressives take center stage and also-rans look for traction.
Image: The second Democratic debate, hosted by CNN, is taking place over two nights in Detroit with 10 candidates on stage each night.
The second Democratic debate, hosted by CNN, is taking place over two nights in Detroit with 10 candidates on stage each night.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; AP; Getty Images

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By Jonathan Allen

DETROIT — An awkward twist of fate has an all-white cast of 10 Democratic presidential candidates taking the debate stage here Tuesday night amid a national firestorm over President Donald Trump's racist commentary.

A random draw by CNN, the debate's host, put them out front — without including a single one of the five contenders of color, all of whom will participate on the second night of the debate on Wednesday, along with Joe Biden, the front-runner in the polls.

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So, the 10 white men and women on Tuesday will be the first of the candidates to answer the president's put-downs and try to refute his assertion that he has the best programs for black and brown Americans. And they'll have to do so at a time when they are still trying to define their own narratives.

That could be tricky, but not impossible, say Democratic strategists.

"The challenge to all the candidates, regardless of their background, but particularly those who are white, is that they are able to convey that they can heal the country in a way that is true to who they are, that doesn’t feel like they are pandering and that sets forth some sort of substantive vision," said Lynda Tran, a Democratic strategist. "I do feel like the field that we have currently has folks who could absolutely do that, regardless of their heritage."

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Of course, Trump and racism won't be the only storylines on the first night of the second 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate.

It will also be a contest for the hearts, souls and votes of the political left — a chance for contrast between top-tier candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-identified democratic socialist who won Michigan in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who favors regulated markets — as well as an opportunity for them to try Biden's more centrist approach to governance in absentia.

Because Sanders and Warren occupy similar ideological space on the left flank of Democratic politics and rank second and third, respectively, in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, there has been an expectation in some political circles that they will savage each other in their first head-to-head meeting of the primary season.

But there are reasons to think that's unlikely.

For starters, the two have long been friends, have similar profiles built around advancing progressive approaches to policy issues and share fans. With both raising large amounts of money and neither one in imminent danger of dropping out of contention any time soon, there's not much urgency to scoring a big political hit.

All in all, the risk of a misprosecuted or poorly received attack could be greater than the value of a well-executed one.

"The pundits may want to pit Warren and Bernie against each other, but they actually have a lot of shared beliefs. Tonight, I think you’re going see the two leading progressives contrast their views with the rest of the field," said Democratic strategist Rebecca Kirszner Katz, whose firm advises progressive candidates. "Progressives don’t want to see them swing at each other. We want to see them work together to take on those in the party who still believe that running to the soft center is the way to win."

The real action could come from the wings — literally, not figuratively — as candidates further back in the polls and more in the political center than Warren and Sanders try to gain traction.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who serves in the Senate with both of them, could look for openings to show where she disagrees.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, for example, wasn't a part of the first debates in Miami last month, and that means he both has a chance to introduce himself to voters and a need to catch fire quickly. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who has faded in the polls since a shaky performance in his first debate, may need to show both voters and donors that he can have a solid performance — even if that doesn't mean landing big punches.

Because some of the candidates haven't met the donor or polling thresholds to compete in future debates, this could be a last opportunity before the field starts to narrow. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are all in or near the Hail Mary phase of their campaigns, as is celebrity spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson.

One wild card: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who led all candidates in fundraising in the last quarter with $25 million, is consistently coming in fifth in national polls at around 6 percent.

Like Warren and Sanders, he could have a target on his back, but he could also be a hunter on the debate stage.

Lis Smith, a top aide to Buttigieg, said it would be counterproductive for her to talk about her candidate's strategy.

"We're not interested in telegraphing — only doing," she said.