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The 4 Candidates at Risk in Tonight’s Democratic Debate

October 15, 2019, 2:20 PM UTC

When a dozen Democratic candidates take the stage for the fourth presidential debate Tuesday night, four in particular will be seeking a breakthrough performance to propel their campaigns forward. 

The frontrunners—former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—will surely garner much of the attention and speaking time. But one third of the participants, Julian Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), are in danger of not meeting the higher benchmarks to qualify for the November debate.

On the other hand, middle-of-the-pack candidates Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have already qualified for November, and can afford to play it safe Tuesday night and hope for the opportunity to make their case later without competing with such a cacophony of voices.

Castro, Gabbard, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke have all met the donor threshold, but need to make headway in the polls soon to land a spot on stage November 20 in Georgia. In addition to having a minimum of 165,000 unique donors, the candidates must also meet one of two polling stipulations: either two polls at 5% or greater in early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina; or four polls at 3% or more in early nominating states or national surveys. So far, O’Rourke and Klobuchar are polling above 3% in one poll each, and Castro and Gabbard have not reached the threshold in any poll. All of the candidates have until November 13 to meet the criteria. 

Tuesday night’s performance will involve some careful calculus for these four. How aggressive is too aggressive? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) only enjoyed a temporary polling boost from her back and forth with Biden over school busing in the first debate. Other candidates who have taken a more confrontational approach with the frontrunners have not seen that translate to momentum on the campaign trail. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who repeatedly attempted to draw attention to Biden’s age in the first debate, never made it to the second. 

Castro and Gabbard appear to be the two candidates most in need of a boost. Gabbard is trailing all of the other candidates who qualified for the debate in polling average according to Real Clear Politics, with less than 1%. Castro is slightly ahead of her, and Klobuchar also falls below 2%. O’Rourke leads the pack of four with a 2.6% polling average. 

In September, the 10-person debate lasted three hours and the candidates with the least amount of speaking time, O’Rourke and Andrew Yang, had the mic for less than 10 minutes a piece. Meanwhile, Biden grabbed more than 17 minutes of time. Tuesday, the debate is expected to be a half hour shorter with two more candidates on stage. So, the four fighting to make it to November may only have a few key moments to make their cases. 

Julian Castro

The former Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Barack Obama appeared to acknowledge the precarious position of his campaign in the September debate, delivering a more forceful and combative performance and directly going after frontrunner Biden. 

His most noteworthy attack, accusing Biden of not recalling the details of his own health plan, turned out to be a misfire when it was replayed in post-debate coverage. Biden did not misspeak, and Castro has seen little poll movement despite his willingness to argue the finer points of policy and take on tough topics such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings. 

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)

After threatening to boycott the debate and releasing a video alleging the selection process is undemocratic and rigged, Gabbard Tweeted Monday morning that she would indeed show up in Ohio. Gabbard is drawing support, but it’s unclear if its from the sectors that will help her get through a Democratic primary. Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader, have praised Gabbard, and she has also appeared several times on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News show. 

Gabbard didn’t qualify for the third Democratic debate in September, though, and missing another could be a debilitating blow. Of all the candidates, her overall strategy and debate tactics seem the most unpredictable. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

In the last debate in September, the U.S. Senator from Minnesota launched her opening remarks with a strong statement reaching out to the center—appealing to Democrats who may feel Medicare for All and other policies from candidates like Warren and Sanders push too far. 

“If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you’ve got a home with me, because I don’t want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America,” she said. 

Klobuchar has not been directly confrontational with her opponents, however, and that could change with her candidacy teetering. She is polling well (compared to O’Rourke, Castro and Gabbard) in Iowa, her neighboring state, and that could boost her chances of making the November stage.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)

The former U.S. representative from Texas sparked attention for his forceful “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15”-stance on gun regulations after his hometown of El Paso was devastated by a mass shooting in early August. 

He has continued to push the issue, drawing hard lines with other candidates, including trading verbal barbs with Buttigieg. O’Rourke accused the South Bend mayor of being too politically calculating. “Let’s have the courage to say what we believe,” he responded on Twitter when Buttgieg said the AR-15 clip would play into GOP talking points. Later, appearing on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America,” Buttigieg retorted: “I get it. I mean, he needs to pick a fight in order to stay relevant.”

While O’Rourke is polling well overall compared to the other three, his numbers in early states lag—perhaps the result of a campaign that has been particularly nationally focused. In New Hampshire and Nevada his polling average is half a percentage point. Having already qualified in one poll, appealing to voters in those two states, in addition to Iowa and South Carolina, could go a long way to securing his spot on the November stage. 

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