4 Things to Watch for During the Third Democratic Debate

September 12, 2019, 3:59 PM UTC

The third round of Democratic debates is set to take place in Houston, Texas, this Thursday with just 10 presidential candidates onstage.

For the first time in this election cycle, the qualifying candidates will debate on one night, from 8 to 11 p.m E.T. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—the three front runners—will take center stage.

They’ll be flanked by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Senator Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

As the vast Democratic field somewhat narrows, here are four things to watch for during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate.

1. The Warren-Biden showdown

Of the top three candidates, just Warren and Biden have yet to face one another on the Democratic debate stage. Conflict is more than likely during the third round.

Warren represents a progressive base looking for major change, while Biden represents moderate Democrats longing for the days of the Obama White House. She supports Medicare for All, while he wants to expand on the success of the Affordable Care Act. She has promised to upend corporate America, while he spent decades as a Delaware senator protecting its interests.

This last point is likely to be a major one during Thursday night’s debate, predicted Josh Nanberg, a D.C.-based communications consultant and political strategist.

“She will compare her record fighting big banks and fighting the financial industry to Vice President Biden’s record of representing those industries,” he told Fortune. It’ll be up to Biden to pivot to his time as vice president, where he aided in regulation, he said.

At the same time, the Obama buffer is getting old.

“Biden thus far has just been falling back on Obama as the response to everything,” said Angela Kuefler, senior vice president of research at public relations firm Global Strategy Group. “There is a point in which he will have to do more than that.”

2. Personality or policy branding

While the debate stage will grow by next month—the fourth debate has the same qualification thresholds, but with more time to reach them—Thursday night will be an opportunity for these 10 Democratic candidates to differentiate themselves from one another and pull ahead in the race. As in most elections, said Kuefler, voters will want to see candidates’ personalities and motivations presented more than the details of policy plans.

“I don’t think Donald Trump won because he had any particular plan people cared about. It was a personality and approach to the world,” said Kuefler. “That’s fundamentally what people always care about in elections.”

With Warren, however, talking personality and policy has become one and the same. Her campaign has made “having a plan” a part of her brand.

“It’s not the plans alone she’s selling, but rather her approach to problem solving,” said Kuefler. “So even with her, the candidate the most focused on the specifics of policy, she’s evolved into using it as a tool to convey her personality as well. Seems to be working so far.”

3. The attack target

As the field narrows, Democratic candidates are also likely to take aim at the other 2020 contenders. While there may be “a certain sense of cordiality and commodity” among candidates simply because they’ve all made it this far, said Kuefler, “I tend to think we actually will see a little bit more of the gloves coming off at this point.”

Who faces the brunt of these attacks will show whom the lower- and middle-tier candidates view as the biggest threat. So far, that’s been Biden.

Warren, however, may be an equal or greater target this round, as she’s yet to face off with the other major contenders. (While Warren stood alongside Sanders in the last debate, the two have a similar base and “don’t necessarily have to differentiate themselves from each other” at this point, said Kuefler.)

“Biden, despite frankly less than stellar performances by a lot of different measures in the past, does continue to dominate the polls,” said Kuefler. “So the question is do they gang up on him, or do they see Warren now as the biggest threat as she continues to rise in the polls and she continues to dominate the conversation after these debates?”

While attacks are bound to happen, not everyone thinks aggression is the best path forward. According to Nanberg, throwing punches can show strength in the moment, but doesn’t always aid a campaign in the long run—as seen with Harris’ past attacks on Biden.

“She was I assume trying to put herself in the top tier as the alternative to Biden who can take on Donald Trump and take a punch and throw a punch,” he said, “but I think it came off as just throwing punches.”

“Differentiating yourself versus trying to take someone else out I think is a more effective use of your time on the debate stage,” he added.

4. Andrew Yang’s potential moment of truth

The entrepreneur is the only candidate without political experience to make it to the Democratic debate stage Thursday night. He’s risen to prominence on his promise of a universal basic income for every American over the age of 18, but will need to better explain the details of this plan if he hopes to keep his place in the Top 10, said Nanberg.

“If he continues to not explain it more thoroughly, people are going to be able to tag him with just giving people free money, and that’s not a real popular positioning for him,” said Nanberg. “It puts him in a corner that I don’t think he’ll be able to punch out of.”

Yang’s campaign manager reportedly said the candidate will do “something no presidential candidate has ever done before in history” on Thursday night. No details were given, but the announcement fits his profile as a disruptor.

“Every election cycle there’s a certain population of people who like to usurp and upset things,” said Kuefler. “I think he has taken on that mantle in the Democratic primary this time.”

Still, said Kuefler, Yang is “continually on borrowed time.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

How to watch the third Democratic debate—even without cable
—What to know about the third Democratic debate: time, date, lineup
—Houston hopes Thursday’s Democratic debate at historically black university drives conversation
—These are the most talked about candidates ahead of the third Democratic debate
Black women voters are key to the 2020 presidential race. Here’s who they support
—Will O’Rourke and Castro enjoy a home-field advantage at Thursday’s Democratic debate?
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