Former US Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders are set to face off Sunday night, 15 March, in the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic primary, a contest that comes as the United States and much of the world struggle to contain a global pandemic amid mounting economic uncertainty.
Much has changed in the United States, and in the campaign, since the Democrats' last debate less than three weeks ago.
It is Biden who will step on stage as the front-runner, a distinction that seemed unlikely when Sanders was winning early contests. But more moderate Democrats have rapidly consolidated around Biden, buoyed by his strong standing with black voters and motivated by a desire to block Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who many in the party believe would lose to President Donald Trump in November.
The fast-moving coronavirus has largely grounded the candidates for days, leading them to cancel campaign rallies even as big states prepare to vote on Tuesday. That's also frozen the trajectory of the primary contest, limiting Sanders' opportunities to regain momentum.
For both Biden and Sanders, the debate is a moment to display their leadership skills in front of what could be one of the largest audiences of the primary. They’ll aim to draw a contrast with Trump’s uneven handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the Democrats will argue over who has the right experience, temperament and policy prescriptions to lead the nation through a crisis.
“Moments like these don’t come around often in campaigns, and this is a perfect opportunity to show millions that you have what it takes,” said Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and campaign adviser to President Barack Obama. “They must show voters they are the answer to what is missing right now by being calm, honest, ready to lead and empathetic.”
The coronavirus crisis rapidly upended plans for Sunday’s debate. First, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would hold the contest without a live audience. Then the debate was moved from a large venue in Arizona, one of the states holding a primary Tuesday, to a television studio in Washington because of concerns about cross-country travel.
CNN, the network hosting the debate, said it was positioning the podiums for Biden and Sanders to be 6 feet apart in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Pandemic Bolsters Biden’s Central Argument
For Biden, the outbreak of a global pandemic has been a moment to bolster the central argument of his candidacy: that his eight years as vice president give him the experience, as well as the relationships in Washington and around the world, that are needed in the Oval Office during turbulent times.
Advisers say Biden will also aim in Sunday’s debate to show voters who backed Sanders or other liberal candidates that they have a home in his campaign.
In one overture to liberals, Biden announced his support for a bankruptcy plan championed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who ended her 2020 campaign earlier this month and has yet to endorse anyone.
In a virtual town hall on Friday, Biden said his support for Warren's proposal, which aims to simplify the bankruptcy process, is "one of the things that I think Bernie and I will agree on."
After rebounding in stunning fashion from his sluggish start in the primary, Biden now holds a solid lead over Sanders in the all-important delegate race, and a strong showing in Tuesday’s primary contests could effectively guarantee his nomination. Four big states will be up for grabs: Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Florida, a perennial general election battleground where Biden appears to have an edge over Sanders.
Sanders Caught Off-Guard
Sanders and his supporters were caught off guard by how quickly the race has moved away from them. The Vermont senator still retains a loyal following among young voters and liberals, but he’s failed to expand his appeal, particularly among black voters. His calls for a sweeping political and economic revolution have also fallen flat with suburban voters.
Sanders is facing some pressure from within the Democratic Party to step aside and allow Biden to take Trump on one-on-one. Several Democratic groups that were waiting to endorse until after the primary have consolidated around Biden, including super PAC Priorities USA.
Sanders’ advisers say he is a realist about his current standing and the difficulty of the path ahead. Yet the senator is pledging to grill Biden in Sunday’s debate on his plans for tackling college debt, for his past support of the Iraq Qar and for his backing of multilateral trade agreements.
“I’m going to ask Joe Biden, I mean Joe is part of the establishment for a very long time, ‘Joe, what role have you played in trying to make sure that we end this massive level of income and wealth inequality where three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America?'" Sanders said Saturday during an online “fireside chat” with supporters.
Yet it’s unclear if the issues Sanders is aiming to highlight will resonate with voters at a time when much of the nation’s focus has shifted to the growing toll of the coronavirus.
Schools and businesses across the country are closed, and many hospitals and clinics are struggling to obtain tests for the coronavirus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.