Top Candidates Signal New Willingness to Spar Ahead of Debate

Democratic debate
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The Democratic presidential primary's top tier candidates have shown a new willingness to lob direct attacks at each other in the lead up to Tuesday night's debate.

Candidates who insisted on focusing on policy in the early stages of the primary have gone on offense in recent days. The first jab came from Bernie Sanders, who ended his long streak of non-confrontation on Sunday when he labeled Elizabeth Warren a "capitalist." Then Warren, in a piece published Tuesday, called out her opponents for "hobnobbing with the rich and powerful." And Pete Buttigieg's latest ad calls out both Sanders and Warren by name for their radical health care proposals.

The current primary has been less confrontational than primaries in the past, but as the field thins and frontrunners continue to establish themselves, candidates are showing they're ready to take shots at opponents. Tuesday night's debate in Westerville, Ohio, will feature 12 candidates on the stage at once, and offers an opportunity for candidates to make a big move.

"At some point the candidates have to unleash the dogs of war, and this debate seems the time," said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, who notes that time is running out for candidates to make a move. "By mid-November, people are in their holiday mode until early January, so mid-October makes more sense to me."

Many of the major polling shifts in the Democratic primary have followed debate stage attacks. California senator Kamala Harris, for example, surged in the polls after she took it to former Vice President Joe Biden over school integration. Harris plummeted months later after Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard laid into her criminal justice record.

But debate stage attacks also have the potential to backfire. Julián Castro, for example, was widely deemed the loser of the last debate after he suggested Biden couldn't remember comments he just made, an attack viewed as a cheap shot at the former vice president's age.

Rick Tyler, a Republican political strategist who during the 2016 primary found himself in the middle of an attack-gone-wrong on Marco Rubio, said he thinks there has been a reluctance to resort to personal attacks because of Trump's embrace of them.

"It's been a lot less confrontational," Tyler said. "I think it's because Democrat voters are saying they're sick of the way Trump acts and the way he deals with political opponents, so candidates are afraid that they'll be seen in that light."

Tyler also pointed to the fact that direct attacks have backfired, pointing to attempts to attack Biden by both Harris and Cory Booker, who attacked Biden by criticizing the legacy of Barack Obama. Neither achieved a lasting boost in the polls.

"The Democratic base doesn't like when candidates eat their own," Tyler said. "They hate it when candidates attack each other."

Sabato, however, believes a debate stage confrontation may be the only way to stop candidates on a steady rise in the polls such as Warren.

"Warren has inched ahead, and if the other candidates don’t start cutting her down to size, she may just run away with the whole thing," Sabato said.

One candidate in particular need of slowing down Warren is Sanders, who has fallen to third place in national polls, consistently behind both Warren and Biden.

Warren has adopted the same policies he's championed and emerged as a younger, healthier alternative to the 78-year-old socialist. Fresh off Sanders's heart attack, there have been calls for his supporters to coalesce behind Warren.

The Vermont senator has thus far been reluctant to battle with his longtime ally, even as she advances past him in the far-left lane he himself paved in the Democratic primary. On Sunday, however, he resorted to the ultimate insult, calling Warren a "capitalist," and saying she wouldn't bring "real change."

"There are differences between Elizabeth and myself," Sanders said. "Elizabeth I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not."

Sabato believes one obstacle to debate stage confrontation could be the unprecedented number of candidates sharing the stage, but says the presence of desperate candidates could also lead to fireworks.

"The half-plus of the stage that doesn’t know whether they’ll even be part of the November debate ought to try all their Hail Marys now," he said. "They may not get another chance."