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Tonight’s Democratic debate: How to watch, start time, and 4 key issues to watch for during it

February 19, 2020, 7:51 PM UTC

Three days before the crucial Nevada caucuses, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will face his Democratic presidential challengers on the debate stage for the first time in Las Vegas Wednesday night.

Although not on the Nevada ballot, Bloomberg qualified for the latest debate by ranking in four Democratic National Committee-approved polls.

“Mike Bloomberg has had the benefit of flooding the airwaves and inboxes without being truly tested on his policies and records,” says Democratic strategist Alaina Beverly, a former aide in the White House Office of Urban Affairs during the Obama administration. “That’s all about to change.”

The ninth debate begins at 9 p.m. E.T. and will be held at the Paris Theater. Hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, Noticias Telemundo, and the Nevada Independent, the debate will be moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor and Dateline host, Lester Holt; NBC’s Meet the Press moderator, Chuck Todd; NBC Chief White House correspondent and MSNBC anchor, Hallie Jackson; Telemundo correspondent, Vanessa Hauc, and the Nevada Independent‘s Jon Ralston.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leads Democrats with 32% support in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week. That number is up 9 percentage points since January. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in at 16%, Bloomberg at 14%, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at 12% in the poll.

So, will Sanders and Bloomberg butt heads tonight? Will former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg jump into the fray? Will slumping Warren and Biden go after Sanders? And, can Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) follow up her robust back-to-back debate performances?

Here’s what you should know ahead of tonight’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas.

Who qualified for the debate?

Here are the six candidates who qualified for Wednesday’s Democratic debate:

  • Joe Biden
  • Mike Bloomberg
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Elizabeth Warren

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and California billionaire and activist Tom Steyer are both still in the Democratic race, but did not qualify to participate in tonight’s debate.

How to watch tonight’s Democratic debate online—even without cable

The Democratic debate will be broadcast live on NBC News, MSNBC, and Universo (in Spanish). It will also be available via live stream on the web sites of NBC NewsMSNBCTelemundo, and the Nevada Independent.

NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo will also stream the debate via its mobile apps on iOS, Android, as well as their social media sites. And NBC News NOW will live stream the debate on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and other streaming devices.

YouTube, SiriusXM Radio channels 118 and 124, and TuneIn will also broadcast tonight’s debate.

4 key issues to watch for during the debate

All six candidates will have something to prove: Are they electable enough to defeat President Donald Trump? Here’s what to expect:

1. The Bloomberg effect

As Generation Z’ers would say, Bloomberg is about to “get that smoke” from his debate rivals up close on Wednesday. The candidates will undoubtedly go after the former NYC mayor on his political record and might claim he’s bought his way to the top of the polls and onto the debate stage.

Expect Sanders to pull no punches and go directly after Bloomberg being the head of a media empire, over his past remarks about women and minorities, and his past support of the controversial police practice known as “stop-and-frisk,” which was widely criticized for disproportionately targeting blacks and Latinos.

During a rally in Tacoma, Wash., on Monday, Sanders called stop-and-frisk “racist” and said the procedure caused “communities of color to live in fear and humiliation.”

Sanders also told supporters that the U.S. has “a corrupt political system” that enables billionaires to buy elections.

“So today we say to those billionaires who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support candidates who represent the rich and the powerful,” Sanders said. “Today we say to Mayor Bloomberg: we are a democracy, not an oligarchy.”

For her part, Warren tweeted on Tuesday, “It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate. But at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”

Warren also fired off another tweet to her nearly 4 million followers, saying Bloomberg “approved and oversaw a program that surveilled and tracked Muslim communities.”

And Biden told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday that while “60 billion dollars can buy you a lot of advertising…it can’t erase your record.”

“The field is going to have to go after Bloomberg because he has had some polling success and spending millions in a race that have been running in for a long time and they’re simply not happy with that,” said Brian Sobel, a San Francisco Bay Area political analyst. “They are going to hit Bloomberg with a lot of issues. “

Beverly believes that Sanders, Biden, and Warren will challenge Bloomberg shamelessly, while Buttigieg will be among the other debaters who will pick their spots.

“It’s in Buttigieg’s best interests to stay above the fray, he’s the fresh face, the moderate alternative,” Beverly says. “Having said that, he will give elbows here, and if he is attacked, he will rely on his military experience to distinguish himself and what the (other candidates) are lacking.” 

2. Can Sanders survive his frontrunner status?

Expect Sanders to take his fair share of criticism after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and leading polls in Nevada and California.

Bloomberg will likely try to validate his presence on the debate stage and that means directly taking on Sanders. Bloomberg may join Biden and Warren, who have criticized the bad behavior of some of Sanders’ online supporters after they apparently sent threatening messages to members of the influential Culinary Workers Union in Nevada.

Sanders has called such behavior “unacceptable” and preached respect, but the candidates could certainly use the episode to pounce on the frontrunner.

Watch Sanders possibly pivot the attention from himself to make strong comparisons between Bloomberg and Trump.

3. Will Biden and Warren rebound?

Biden and Warren are fighting to keep their presidential hopes alive as the former frontrunners’ campaigns continue to struggle for relevancy with voters.

“If they don’t do well in this debate in Nevada, and start resonating in South Carolina, it likely means the end of the line for one or both of them,” Sobel says. “That’s their reality.” 

With Biden’s back against the wall after two subpar showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former vice president desperately needs to have a strong showing in Wednesday’s debate that will translate to getting votes, Sobel says.

“He’s going to have to be all in and focused,” Sobel says. “(Biden) tends to drift off at times. It seems as though he can’t stay on message through an answer.

“This has gotten past the point of his supporters saying, ‘Well, that’s just Joe,’ because it makes him look irrelevant,” Sobel says. “He has a lot riding on the line Wednesday night.”

While Warren will likely go after Bloomberg, she has to really focus on the issues as her mostly male counterparts bicker among themselves, Beverly says.

The Massachusetts senator, Beverly believes, can make a case for herself in Nevada, where more than half of the lawmakers in its legislature are women.

“She is really grappling with the electability fight,” Beverly says about Warren. “Nevada has proven that a woman can win here. She has a chance.”

Biden, who had given himself an above-the-fray persona in previous debates, now has to get in the trenches. He’s criticized Sanders on the debate stage as of late and may feel pressured to up his game.

4. Can Buttigieg and Klobuchar sustain their momentum?

The underdog senator from Minnesota has seen new life in her campaign buoyed by strong debate performances in the past month. That’s morphed into a burst of supporter-themed “Klomentum” to finish third in the New Hampshire primary.

“Klobuchar has done a good job of being the adult in the room on the debate stage,” Beverly says. “Her approach of ‘I didn’t come here to battle amongst family, I came here to represent the people,’ is working and I think she will keep that lane (Wednesday) night.”

Sobel agrees.

“She’s going to have to work extra hard to find her place in the debate navigating through some of the narratives that will be on that stage—the Bloomberg attacks from Sanders and others, to Biden and Warren maintaining relevancy, and Buttigieg trying to find common ground,” he says. “Klobuchar has to find her theme to stand out.”  

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