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Democratic Debate: How to Watch, Start Time—and 8 Key Things to Watch for During It

October 15, 2019, 1:21 PM UTC

The fourth presidential debate comes at an interesting moment in the campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination. When the candidates gather on the stage tonight at 8 p.m. E.T. at Otterbein University, a private, liberal arts campus of 2,500 students in Westerville, Ohio, they will be reconvening amid a landscape that is both familiar yet also changed in important ways, creating new opportunities for some and challenging moments for others.

The dynamics within the race have been upended by a series of recent developments, including the White House’s attacks on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Bernie Sanders’ heart attack, and the emergence of Elizabeth Warren, according to some recent polls, as the new frontrunner. Warren leads in five of seven major polls, including a 29% to 26% advantage over Biden in the latest Quinnipiac University poll.

Meanwhile, there’s the increasing sense at least among Democrats that President Trump is melting down. Impeachment has quickly gained support among Democratic officials in Congress thanks to the whistleblower’s testimony and other revelations. 

And the foreign policy debacle unfolding at the border between Turkey and Syria represents one of the few occasions lately when even the president’s staunchist Republican defenders were willing to break ranks with him. The invasion, which Trump didn’t discourage until it was too late, is seen by analysts as simultaneously breathing new life into ISIS and betraying the U.S.’s longtime Kurdish allies.

A full dozen candidates have qualified for this debate, so expect a packed stage with moderators working double time to enforce order and keep the questions and answers on pace. The debate will be hosted by CNN and the New York Times. CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and New York Times national editor Marc Lacey will serve as moderators. The format of the debate has not been announced.

The Candidates

In order to qualify for this debate, candidates must have been polling at 2% or more in four DNC-approved polls by October 1. They also must have received campaign contributions from 130,000 unique donors and 400 donors per state in order to take the stage at Otterbein for the fourth debate.

  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
  • South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • California Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbert
  • California billionaire activist Tom Steyer

How to Watch

There are several ways to catch the debate. On TV, it will air live at 8 p.m. E.T., 7 p.m. C.T., 5 p.m. P.T. on CNN, CNN International, and CNN en Español.

There are a number of online options to watch the debate, some of which require a subscription (or you’ll need to sign up for a free trial).

Free options include the CNN and New York Times websites, which will both stream the debate. It will also be viewable via CNN’s apps for iOS and Android and on the CNNgo apps for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, and Android TV.

Other, broader, options include:

  • Sling TV – You’ve got a seven-day free preview before the monthly fees, which range $25 to $40, kick in.
  • PlayStation Vue – The free trial is 5 days. Subscription packages start at $50 per month.
  • Hulu with Live TV – You can try the service free for a week. Once that’s up, you’ll pay $45 per month.
  • YouTube TV – After a seven day trial, you can expect monthly charges of $40.

Some things we’ll be watching for:

1. Does Elizabeth Warren build on her recent gains? 

Mario Tama—Getty Images

Warren has been a solid, measured debater throughout the early stages of the campaign, honing her message and stressing her bona fides as a policy wonk with a human touch, out to fight corruption and bolster the working class. She didn’t exactly fly under the radar, but she benefitted from the fact that most of the other candidates, when they chose to go negative, went negative on Biden instead.

Now that polls indicate she is pulling ahead of Biden in terms of support, however, will she face more criticism and attacks from other candidates? Will Biden challenge her on her more progressive proposals? If so, will she respond cautiously or with gusto? Warren’s buoyant performance in the LGBTQ+ forum last week—she provided the night’s most meme-worthy comic moment—may be an indication that she’s ready to stand out from the crowd.

2. Will Joe Biden come out swinging?

Scott Olson—Getty Images

The former vice president and, until recently, the presumptive frontrunner has had a rocky few weeks as his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine became fodder for President Trump’s infamous phone call with that country’s president, during which Trump appears to have encouraged Ukraine to investigate the younger Biden. (Trump offered no evidence to suggest Biden did anything wrong; the White House has denied any wrongdoing.) 

Biden senior has pushed back hard, calling for Trump’s impeachment and defending his son. But at times, the vice president’s campaign has seemed a bit unsure of how to handle the controversy, knowing that every precious minute they spend denying Trump’s claims is a minute on defense, when they need to be presenting their own message to voters. Still, the matter will inevitably come up at the debate. How much will Biden choose to delve into the particulars of the case versus talking about something—anything—else? Speaking of which…

3. How does the crisis in northern Syria change the tenor of the debate?

Ozan Kose—AFP via Getty Images

Absent the drama of the whistleblower and Ukraine phone call, this moment would otherwise present a terrific opening for Biden to regain momentum. He has by far the strongest foreign policy credentials on the stage, and the White House’s faltering handling of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria is likely to come up. Will Biden be able to present his criticism of Trump’s role in the crisis in a clear, concise way? 

This may also be a good opportunity for Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan and has spoken forcefully about the role of the commander in chief in serving and supporting the military. 

More broadly, the conversation about the security situation in the Middle East is particularly grave right now, and it is likely voters will be judging candidates to see who rises to the occasion in terms of conveying gravitas and a solid command of the facts.

4. Bernie Sanders: Does he still have the fight in him?

Scott Eisen—Getty Images

The Vermont senator has endured two personal calamaties in recent weeks, starting with his heart attack and subsequent heart procedure on October 2, and followed a week later by the death of his daughter in law, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Though Sanders has made several public appearances since the procedure and vowed to return to a vigorous campaign schedule, voters will undoubtedly be looking to see how healthy he appears to be. One intriguing possibility: Sanders has already linked his health scare—and health care—to his plan to create Medicare for All. Will he try to leverage his health crisis into a moment that electrifies both his loyal supporters and those voters who are still making up their minds?

5. Pete Buttigieg: No more Mister Nice Guy? 

For much of the Mayor’s campaign, his brand has been that of the nice, young man your grandparents like best. But with his support seeming to have plateaued, Buttigieg may be looking to shake things up. Yesterday on a Snapchat channel (clearly, he’s looking to gain support with the younger demo), Buttigieg shared caustic comments about both Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke.

In response, Cory Booker jumped in, charging that by describing mandatory gun buyback proposals as “confiscation,” Buttigieg was mimicking an NRA talking point. 

Look for some spicy exchanges in this vein.

6. Will anyone break out from the middle of the pack?

O’Rourke has determinedly focused his campaign on gun control. Castro had a series of strong debates, though his snarky comments on Biden’s age in the last one may have turned off voters. Booker has been making the case that his message of empathy and compassion has a better chance to beat Trump that the sharper words of his more combative rivals. Similarly, Klobuchar has repeatedly positioned herself as a pragmatic midwesterner attuned to the views of average voters in must-win states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. Yang has been having a ball, building real grassroots support among low-propensity voters intrigued by his plan for the universal basic income. But for each of them, the question is, What does this add up to? With 112 days to the Iowa caucus, time is starting to run short for these candidates to make an impression.

7. What will Tulsi Gabbard do?

Brian Blanco—Getty Images

Gabbard had threatened to boycott the debate up until Monday, on the grounds that she felt the networks and the Democratic National Committee were stacking the deck against low-polling outsider candidates such as herself. (Marianne Williamson, who did not qualify for tomorrow’s debate, tweeted in solidarity of Gabbard.) When Gabbard last debated, in July, she used her time to deliver a withering critque of Kamala Harris on her background as a prosecutor. “There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said. Whether she uses her moment now to indict the system or goes after another top-tier candidate, don’t be surprised in Gabbard has a memorable exchange.

8. Finally, welcome Tom Steyer to the stage!

Robyn Beck—AFP via Getty Images

Steyer, one of the enigmas of the 2020 campaign, will make his debate debut Tuesday evening. Up until now, the billionaire former hedge fund manager has been largely campaigning through a determined direct mail campaign in early voting states, and organizing on college campuses, particularly in Iowa. 

A longtime proponent of impeachment and the founder and chief funder of NextGen America, a climate change advocacy group, Steyer’s pet causes are popular among Democratic voters, but his background as a ultrarich hedge funder may offer other candidates fodder for criticism. 

And as with any businessperson who runs for office, there are open questions about his retail campaign skills; earlier this week, he told a group of NextGen students that, in his view, the Ohio was no longer a swing state in national campaigns, raising eyebrows. Moreover, Yang may have effectively taken the unconventional/entrepreneurial candidate’s lane away from Steyer. 

Still, an unexpectedly strong performance from Steyer could shake up the race just as it heads into a key, make-or-break period.

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