Four storylines to watch in tonight's second Democratic debate

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — At last night’s debate, the pragmatists struck back (more on that below), progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren held their own, and Marianne Williamson talked about “dark psychic” forces.

And now we’re on to Night Two, with tonight’s lineup being these 10 Democrats: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Bill de Blasio, Michael Bennet, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee.

Here are the four storylines we’re watching tonight:

1. Does Biden look stronger than he did in Miami?

He wasn’t on the stage last night, but Joe Biden had a good night. He had surrogates (Bullock, Delaney etc) defending the Obama record; the generational challengers Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke really didn’t break through; and Bernie and Warren split the progressive high ground. That’s his path to victory.

Tonight’s debate is going to go one of two ways for Biden: He’s either going to have a decent to good night, which will solidify him as the big dog in Dem race.

Or he’s going to have a repeat bad performance, which could be quite the destabilizing event in this contest.

2. Get ready for a big conversation on race

Biden’s task won’t be easy, however. He’ll be flanked on one side by Kamala Harris (who charged at him on bussing and segregationist senators in Miami), and one the other side by Cory Booker (who’s loaded for bear on Biden’s 1994 crime bill).

By the way, last night’s debate stage was all-white, while tonight’s is full of diversity – Harris, Booker, Castro and Yang.

3.Who’s the more aggressive candidate — Harris or Booker?

Kamala Harris came out swinging last month, and it boosted her poll numbers (before coming back to earth).

But did she go a little too far? And will we see Booker, who’s looking for his moment, try to make his move?

4. The one-percenters and below

Like last night, the candidates who are sitting at 1 percent or less in the polls — Bill de Blasio, Michael Bennet, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee — have little to lose.

This could very well be their last debate…

The bold vs. the popular

As for the pragmatists striking back last night, we saw:

  • Steve Bullock, in his opening statement of his first overall debate performance (he didn’t qualify for the Miami debates), discussing his record as Montana governor. “I'm running for president to get stuff done,” he said.
  • John Delaney, Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar underscoring their opposition to the single-payer Medicare-for-All bill that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren support.
  • And Bullock and O’Rouke arguing that decriminalizing illegal border crossings — as Warren said she supports — would only incentivize more illegal immigration crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

But as Elizabeth Warren retorted to Delaney, "I don’t understand why anybody goes to the trouble of running for president of the United States just to say all the things we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for."

And that’s maybe the central divide we saw last night: boldness (from Warren and Sanders) and popularity on issues (from the more pragmatic candidates).

Remember, this month’s NPR/PBS/Marist poll showed just 41 percent of all adults supporting Medicare for All that replaces/eliminates private insurance (compared with 70 percent who want to choose between private insurance and Medicare)… 27 percent who back decriminalizing illegal border crossings… and another 27 percent who support reparations for slavery.

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And, as New York Magazine’s Josh Barro points out, the political science shows that more moderate candidates perform better in general elections.

That’s the choice for Dems: Go bold or go popular.

2020 Vision: Warren gets backing from Sanders’ first ‘16 congressional endorser

While Sanders and Warren didn’t spar last night, Warren definitely pulled off a power move before the debate.

Her campaign announced the endorsement from Rep. Raúl Grijalva — who was Bernie Sanders’ first congressional endorser in 2016

On the campaign trail today

Before tonight’s debate, Pete Buttigieg participates in a Detroit security officers protest… Beto O’Rourke, staying in Michigan, has lunch with Macomb County residents… And Tom Steyer continues to campaign in New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

NBC’s Julia Jester attended a debate watch party in Concord, N.H., where attendees are engaged, but not swayed yet.

Jester reports: “Some attendees shared they thought Bullock had an impressive debut, Buttigieg has been consistently strong across debates (one elderly man said he was still getting used to the husband references), neighboring senators Warren and Sanders held solid, and one woman said she worried the media will decide for voters who won before they can personally process what they’ve watched.”

At a watch party in Iowa one voter told NBC’s Priscilla Thompson that the two most progressive candidates stuck together.

Thompson reports: “’It seemed like they, they went out of their way to basically defend each other,’ Kevin Cavallin said. While Cavallin was hoping to find some distinction between the two he thinks not drawing contrast between the pair was smart strategy.”

Tweet of the day

Data Download: And the number of the day is … 17 minutes and 41 seconds.

That’s approximately how long Elizabeth Warren spoke during last night’s debate, according to a count by NPR.

In a close second place: Bernie Sanders, who spoke for 17 minutes and 9 seconds.

Solidly in third was Pete Buttigieg, whose speaking time totaled 14 minutes and 36 seconds.

No other candidate spoke for more than 11 minutes total.

The least speaking time went to John Hickenlooper, at 8 minutes and 54 seconds.

The Lid: Lost in translation

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we tried to sort out which Democratic health care proposals have the most popular support.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald’s big take on last night’s debate: The progressive-moderate split was ripped wide open.

Here’s our team’s fact check and live blog coverage of the debate.

Here’s what’s going on with the fractious debate over a general facing accusations of sexual assault.

And: Eleven candidates have now signed on to a pledge to support the 28th amendment, according to advocacy group American Promise. The amendment would overturn Citizens United and allow limits on money in state and federal elections. The candidates who have signed on are: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Tim Ryan and Kamala Harris.

TRUMP AGENDA: California’s controversial move

California has signed a law that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns to get on the ballot.

AG William Barr is using a unique power of his office to reshape immigration law.

The Trump administration looks ready to renew waivers that allow Iran to get international assistance for civilian nuclear projects.

Trump now says a trade deal with China may not come until after the 2020 election.

A big budget vote is a-comin’ in the Senate.

2020: Biden’s tough task

POLITICO writes that Joe Biden is bracing for a tough debate when it comes to his record on crime.

Arizona Senate candidate Mark Kelly is taking some heat for making close to $2 million from paid speeches in the last year and a half.

Another retirement: GOP Texas Rep. Mike Conaway won’t run for reelection.