This week’s ridiculous Democratic presidential debate in Ohio sought to shoehorn 12 candidates onto one stage for nearly three hours.
The Democratic field was once 24 candidates, so a field of just 12 should be taken as progress.
However, a debate that features 12 candidates is not a debate. It’s more suited as a candidate forum and it is certainly bad television.
Recent weeks have solidified the Democratic field into an upper tier of three: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. The second tier is South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. Everyone else borders on irrelevancy and reeks of desperation.
This race was Mr. Biden’s to lose since he entered as a candidate. But he has been a weak front-runner. His limitations were on full display this week, as he did not really answer questions about his son’s business dealings in Ukraine and China, made several verbal slipups, and revealed that he is burning funds at an unsustainable rate with relatively low cash on hand and very high spending. His lead in the polls has been overtaken by Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden’s arrow appears to be pointed down.
Ms. Warren has been steadily rising for months, with detailed policy plans, significant enthusiasm and strong fundraising. She is the new front-runner, which the debate proved as she was the subject of more attacks than anyone else. Her refusal to admit that middle-class tax cuts will be required to pay for “Medicare for All” undermines her “I have a plan for that” motto. She will continue to be asked about this issue for the foreseeable future. The bill’s author, Mr. Sanders, has forthrightly admitted that his plan would require middle-class tax increases. Ms. Warren will allow only that health care “costs” would drop for middle-class families. Her path through Iowa and New Hampshire appears as strong as anyone and she may become a juggernaut. But she has staked out many positions that will be a problem in the general election.
Mr. Sanders is the biggest wild card. His recent heart attack and successful heart surgery took him off the campaign trail and raised urgent new questions about his age and stamina. He has deflected those questions and recently admitted he would scale back his campaign activities. Meanwhile, the news that three of the rock star progressive freshman members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, will endorse him will give his campaign new momentum. Mr. Sanders is holding a massive rally in Queens, New York, this weekend that will earn significant media attention. He has a high floor and a low ceiling, and some of his vote has migrated to Ms. Warren as her numbers have risen. His platform has essentially been co-opted by many other candidates.
Is there a path for Mr. Buttigieg or Ms. Harris?
Mr. Buttigieg had a strong debate and appears to be best positioned to gain if Mr. Biden continues to stumble or were to drop out. His Midwestern appeal could be attractive in Iowa. He is sharp, well prepared and different from the other candidates. His fundraising has been shockingly strong, with two consecutive quarters of $25 million raised. He needs to break into the first tier to compete directly and gain support.
Ms. Harris seems to be headed the wrong direction. She has no message and has shown limited candidate skills besides landing one solid attack on Mr. Biden in an early debate. Her numbers in her home state of California are dreadful. She has “shaken up” her campaign leadership three times.
Could someone else become a factor?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is a good fit for Iowa’s electorate. It unclear if her message is breaking through. Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey is well-liked and energetic, but he does not appear to have a path. Everyone else is running out of time and money.
Ms. Warren is the most likely nominee and if she wins Iowa and New Hampshire, she will be hard to stop. Democrats may be nervous about her leading the ticket next fall, and they should be. But it seems unlikely that they will make a real effort to block her.
Rumblings of late entries from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton persist, particularly as Mr. Biden continues to underwhelm. But it is getting late for a new entry, even one with unlimited personal wealth or infinite name identification.
The Iowa caucuses are three and a half months away. The race is down to three people, maybe four at this point.
Can Ms. Warren keep gaining while handling front-runner attention? Can Mr. Biden right the ship? Can Mr. Sanders win back support he has lost to Ms. Warren?
These are the questions that will determine who will face President Trump in an epic general election in 2020.
• Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney reelection campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.
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