WASHINGTON - It is more than 16 months until the next U.S. presidential election in late 2020, but 20 Democratic presidential contenders are set to debate each other the next two nights to give Democratic voters a first look at whom they might want to pick as the party's nominee to try to oust Republican President Donald Trump.
Ten of the Democratic candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the current front-runners for the party nomination; senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas, are set to spar Wednesday night for two hours. They will appear before a live audience in Miami, Florida, with millions more watching on national television.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leader for the nomination in national surveys, is joining other top-tier possible choices on the debate stage Thursday night, including senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of the Midwestern city of South Bend, Indiana; along with six others.
The unwieldy field of candidates, in addition to another six that did not meet the Democratic National Committee's minimal political standards to merit a spot in the debates, all sense they might have a chance to unseat Trump after a single term in the White House.
Democratic voters, however, so far seem uncertain of what they are looking for in their party standard-bearer in the Nov. 3, 2020, election - someone who best represents their political views on such contentious issues as health care, abortion, foreign policy, immigration, taxes and more, or possibly a candidate who has one overriding quality: the best chance of defeating Trump.
Attack each other or Trump?
A key unknown ahead of the debates is whether the Democratic challengers will spend more of their time attacking each other for their differences over policy issues, or chiefly aim their political barbs at Trump. Already, some of the Democrats are trying to diminish Biden's nomination chances, attacking him for his recent recollection that 40 years ago when he was a young U.S. senator, he had working relationships in the Senate with segregationists adamantly opposed to the equality of blacks and whites.
Although the candidates have been campaigning for months in the early states where Democrats next year will hold presidential party nominating contests - including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - for millions of Americans watching on television, it will be their first chance to size up the candidates and see whether they find someone they might favor over Trump.
Despite a robust U.S. economy - a normal election-year barometer favoring an incumbent U.S. president's re-election - Trump is by no means a shoe-in for a second four-year term.
Polling shows the one-time New York real estate magnate, a surprise winner in 2016, has yet to win over many voters beyond the hard core of populist and Republican voters that has supported him through his 29-month presidency. More voters than not, surveys repeatedly show, disapprove of his performance in office.
U.S. political pundits dismissed Trump's chances of a victory three years ago, but he could win again.
What latest surveys say
At the moment, however, surveys show several Democrats leading Trump, now 73. The 76-year-old Biden, President Barack Obama's two-term vice president, holds the biggest edge of more than 10 percentage points over Trump. But polls this far ahead of the election are not necessarily predictive and may be just a snapshot of a moment in time.
In all, a dozen Democratic presidential debates are planned between now and the first months of 2020, although the number of candidates appearing in them will diminish over time as contenders drop out for lack of voter support and campaign funds. The first voting in Democratic primaries and caucuses to decide the presidential nomination starts Feb. 3 in the farm state of Iowa.
All of the Democratic presidential candidates, to one degree or another, have staked out positions on key issues they think are important to reshape policy debates in Washington, while at the same time attacking Trump for his views about domestic issues and international relations during his unprecedented presidency.
The Democrats running for the U.S. presidency have broadly adopted a much more expansive liberal role for the federal government than either the more conservative Trump or Republicans who control the Senate. Democrats, in philosophical political agreement with many of their presidential candidates, took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 congressional elections.
The Democratic presidential candidates do have policy differences among themselves and often have emphasized a variety of issues they think might help them connect with voters when there is such a large field of candidates.
Warren and Sanders, neck and neck in second place behind Biden in nomination surveys, are both pushing for far-reaching changes to the country's economic policies to help middle-class families, paid for with higher taxes on wealthy people. Warren wants new taxes on people with more than $50 million in assets, while Sanders called this week for wiping out all $1.6 trillion in student college debt.
O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, has called for $5 trillion plan to combat climate change, an issue that resonates with many Democrats after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
Senators Booker and Klobuchar have advanced more moderate proposals on several issues in hopes of capturing the mass of voters not willing to go as far to the left politically as some of the other Democrats have.
For his part, Biden, to a large degree, has stayed above the fray of debate over policy issues, preferring to present himself as the voice of American stability, a correction to Trump's unpredictable, tweet-filled presidency.
Mocking Trump's long-standing political slogan, "Make America Great Again," Biden recently told voters, "Let's make America America again."
But appearing on the same stage with other Democrats may force him to explain and account for his four decades as a Washington political figure and twice-failed presidential candidate.
Who's debating tonight?
The other candidates debating Wednesday include Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.
Thursday's list of candidates also includes New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and self-help author Marianne Williamson.