The race for the Democratic presidential nomination enters a new phase this week, with candidates desperate to make an impact in a second round of debates.
The debates, which take place on Tuesday and Wednesday evening in Detroit, offer a last chance for some candidates to break out of the lower tiers in the field.
Among the top candidates, the verbal punches will fly thick and fast as the big names vie for an advantage at the last big event before the campaign quietens down for much of August.
“It’s going to be like Thunderdome,” said one Democratic strategist unaligned with any presidential candidate. “Ten come in, but who knows how many come out?”
Ten candidates will debate each night. The clashes will be televised by CNN.
Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner in the race but is showing signs of weakness. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) are, for now, the three candidates best placed to supplant him.
After breakfast on a recent Saturday, Robert Fraass crossed the river from Omaha to this southwest corner of Iowa to catch Bernie Sanders at the opening of his newest campaign office.
He sat in the fourth row, cheering and clapping with about 200 others as Vermont’s senator delivered his familiar tirade against oligarchs and plutocrats and greedy corporations that, he said, are choking the life from America’s middle and working classes.
Fraass voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary when the candidate ran as the left-leaning, fist-shaking alternative to establishment favorite Hillary Clinton. He’s still a fan. But this time, with more than two dozen presidential candidates to choose from, Fraass is shopping around.
He worries that Sanders, 77, is too old and too far left to win a general election. “Realpolitik,” said Fraass, 53, a project manager who works in the credit card industry. “I want someone who can beat Trump, and I wonder if Sanders can do it or if someone else would be better suited.”
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FLINT, Mich.—“Do you need me to check the sturdiness of the noodle?”
Beto O’Rourke leaned over a pot of boiling water. Mae and David Collins and their 17-year-old twins had invited him over for dinner. (A nonprofit group had connected them before the candidate’s visit to Michigan last week.) The former Texas representative and not-so-long-ago Democratic sensation sat around the Collinses’ dining-room table, talking about what had gone wrong since lead poisoned their water and a generation of the city’s children—a crisis that, five years later, still hasn’t been entirely resolved. Of course, this was O’Rourke having a searching conversation, so a staffer was squeezed into the corner live-streaming the exchange almost from the moment he’d walked in the door carrying groceries. Wally, the family dog, barked in the other room—“He’s damaged from the water,” Mae Collins explained. Wally was still drinking out of a bowl filled from the faucet long after the Collins parents realized they needed to keep their children away from the taps. The dog’s hair went white, and, according to his owners, he’s now angry and on edge all the time.
It’s one thing to talk about government failure. It’s another, O’Rourke believes, to speak directly to potential Michigan voters about what the Flint water crisis has meant for their homes and their lives and their communities—to hold up for the camera the jugs of water they have to buy just to make pasta. At home in Texas, the candidate is the cook, but his wife, Amy O’Rourke, took the lead in Flint on Wednesday night. (He did chop the onions and came back to add all the pieces to the sauce.) He joked about throwing a piece of spaghetti against the wall to see whether it would stick. Instead, he grabbed a piece and sucked it in over a few bites: approved. “We got it just in time!” he said.
They took their time cooking dinner; no one was in a rush to eat. His team brought pie and a chocolate cake for dessert. They said he wanted time to really get to know the Collins family. Other candidates were in debate prep, but this was how O’Rourke spent a long night six days before a debate, just 70 miles away in Detroit, that his biggest supporters agree is crucial for turning around what might prove to be the most drastic drop in a Democratic presidential campaign since Howard Dean screamed his way into political history in 2004.
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” Warren said in March as she released of her new policy proposal to break up tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon to create a more balanced market consumers, leading a pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls echoing the same concerns about what they see as the unchecked powers and influence social media and tech giants have in society.
“They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else,” Warren said at the time.
And this week, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook with a $5 billion fine for its oversight on user privacy and the Department of Justice has opened up an investigationinto big tech companies’ alleged anti-competitive behaviors.