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2020 Daily Trail Markers: The Nevada debate edition

The Democratic presidential debate circuit heads to Nevada tonight, three days before the state's caucuses on February 22. Beyond notoriously Nevada-specific issues (like Yucca Mountain), CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin says candidates could face questions about communities in the most diverse state so far of the early nominating contests, where myriad outside groups have sought to capitalize on the campaign spotlight.

Latinx organizing and advocacy groups like Mi Familia Vota have been questioning candidates over the role of Latinos in their campaigns and potential presidencies, interviewing Elizabeth Warren just this week as she campaigned in the nearly one-third Hispanic state. 

AARP has co-sponsored polling in the state, which doesn't conduct many surveys, and where more than half of 2016 caucus-goers were 45 years of age or older. The Human Rights Campaign has ramped up a targeted volunteer and GOTV effort ahead of the caucus in Nevada, with paid staff on the ground organizing an estimated 127,000 LGBTQ caucus-goers throughout the state. 

In this special DEBATE edition of Trail Markers, the CBS News Political Unit gives a rundown of what to expect from each of the candidates and other political news of the day.

FROM THE CANDIDATES

JOE BIDEN

CBS News campaign reporter Bo Erickson: While Joe Biden in recent weeks has focused on primarily contrasting himself with Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, his campaign — like others —has been targeting Mike Bloomberg online.

On Wednesday morning, the Biden team released an online video criticizing Bloomberg's record. On a press call today, a senior Biden official said voters can expect to see this "very sharp contrast" on the debate stage as well. 

Visiting picketing hotel workers in Las Vegas, Biden previewed a potential one-liner for this evening: "The truth is he's basically been a Republican his whole life. The fact of the matter is he didn't endorse Barack or me when we ran. This is a guy using Barack's pictures like, you know, they're good buddies. I'm going to talk about his record." 

In Nevada this week, Biden has focused his stump speech on health care and gun issues, which present two more potential points of contrast with Sanders. He questions the total price tag of "Medicare for All" proposals and tells his crowds he is defending President Obama's legacy by protecting the Affordable Care Act from attacks originating inside the White House and from pro-Medicare-for-All Democrats. 

On guns, Biden raises Sanders' votes against the Brady gun background check bill and his vote to exempt gun manufacturers from lawsuits. In powerful moments on the trail this week, Biden has brought up Sanders' gun record while referencing the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Biden project this intensity on stage tonight?

MIKE BLOOMBERG

CBS News campaign reporter Tim Perry: Mike Bloomberg makes his presidential debate stage debut in Las Vegas tonight. After a surge in his poll numbers amid an unprecedented amount of ad spending, he's expecting the knives to be out, since his fellow Democrats have already begun launching attacks at him before the candidates have taken the stage. Bloomberg, who qualified for the debate yesterday, is spending the day focused on debate prep, since he and his campaign know he's likely to be the prime target tonight.

While the campaign has kept quiet about its specific lines of attack, there are hints that the billionaire businessman has done his research. Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey offered a little insight on what to expect when he tweeted Tuesday that the opposition research on Sanders was "damaging" and "perhaps even disqualifying." 

The campaign has made it no secret that a primary match-up with the Vermont senator is what they've counted on, and tonight, we can expect fireworks as the two face off with each other in person for the first time. 

Bloomberg's campaign hasn't discussed how long the former New York mayor has been preparing for the debate, but CBS News has learned through a campaign aide that he's been practicing in mock debate sessions with a mix of current campaign staffers and advisers who have worked with Bloomberg in the past, playing the roles of each of the candidates.  His debate sessions are being run by Bradley Tusk, who ran Bloomberg's 2009 mayoral race and currently serves as an outside adviser.  This will be the first time Bloomberg has appeared on a debate stage since October 2009.

WHAT TO WATCH: How will Bloomberg parry the attacks from every candidate on stage for his massive spending and controversial record on many hot-button topics? Will his debate performance affect his rise in the polls?

PETE BUTTIGIEG

CBS News campaign reporter Jack Turman: After the first two nominating contests, Buttigieg has a narrow delegate lead over Sanders. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana polled well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his success there has not appeared to give him much of a boost in the next two states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, both of which have more diverse electorates. 

In the week leading up to the Nevada caucuses, Buttigieg has drawn contrasts with Sanders, although not as sharply as in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. 

"I mean, look, Senator Sanders, I think speaks to a lot of ideals that we all share," Buttigieg said at a Las Vegas town hall on Tuesday. "But right now we've got to make sure we're drawing as many people as we can into our coalition."

Buttigieg also focused on Bloomberg at a CNN town hall and accused him of trying to buy the nomination. 

"Look, my campaign wouldn't exist if all that mattered was how much money and fame you start with and how you get yourself on the air," Buttigieg said Tuesday night. "We built this thing from, from nothing, and we built it by having those conversations and letting voters pick apart what you have to say, and to try to just go around that by throwing colossal sums of money on television shows you what's wrong with our system."

WHAT TO WATCH: Will Buttigieg criticize Bloomberg on spending millions of dollars in the presidential race? Can he make an effective appeal to minority voters?

AMY KLOBUCHAR

CBS News campaign reporter Bo Erickson: With another $12 million in her campaign coffers since the last debate in New Hampshire, Klobuchar is still introducing herself to voters in Nevada. Rather than using her television ads to talk about specific issues in depth, she runs through her bio in an effort to raise her name ID in the state. 

As has been the case in previous debates, Klobuchar's team sees the debates as her greatest opportunity to make a positive impression — and earned media is free and has been very effective for her recently. Case in point, her third-place finish in New Hampshire, which her team credits to her highly lauded debate performance.

In previous debates, Klobuchar has taken every opportunity to jump in when two other candidates start to bicker, to state her belief that American voters are exhausted by the infighting. She uses these moments to pitch her plan "to bridge the divides" that separate Americans, boosting her message of success through passing bipartisan bills in the Senate. As her biggest rivals preview their attacks on Bloomberg in his debate debut tonight, it'll be interesting to see whether Klobuchar will insert herself to stop the "noise" or let the others fight it out with the former New York mayor.

And how will try to connect with minorities? This is currently a weak area of support for her campaign, which says that diverse voters throughout the country do not know her yet.

WHAT TO WATCH: How will she target her message to the almost 30% of Latinos, almost 10% of African-Americans and 8% of Asian-Americans in Nevada?

BERNIE SANDERS

CBS News campaign reporter Cara Korte:  This debate feels like it could be the most consequential for Sanders to date. National polling has him ahead, putting him in his best position since Biden entered the race last summer. Sanders took New Hampshire and the popular vote in Iowa. Now, he's poised to perform well in Nevada and is rising in South Carolina. 

Then, there's Super Tuesday, where in California alone there are more delegates at play than twice the first four states combined. Sanders is leading there, too. Over the course of President's Day weekend, Sanders addressed some 50,000 supporters in Super Tuesday states. The 78-year-old democratic socialist is now the front-runner.

Sanders has been fortified by his grassroots support of passionate followers and has benefited from the lack of a single moderate opponent. The heart attack he suffered in the fall does not appear to have affected his campaign, although the information the electorate has about his health remains incomplete, since the 78-year-old candidate has steadfastly refused to release his medical records. After his heart attack, Sanders emerged with an endorsement from progressive rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the largest fourth-quarter fundraising in the field. 

Critics have hammered Sanders' policies are too far left and say he'll alienate moderates. But given that there has been no single moderate to emerge from the pack, Sanders seems to have a solid path to winning the Democratic nomination, as an internal Bloomberg memo pointed out today.

In response to the memo, Sanders' national campaign co-chair Sen. Nina Turner told CBS News, "It's no surprise that Bloomberg and his team are sounding the alarm about the realities of the Sanders' campaign—it is a multi-racial, multi-generational justice movement that can't be bought by the billionaire class. I'm glad he got the people's memo!"

Sanders is very strong when he has a foil. For much of this race it has been "the establishment," which Sanders defines on the stump as the media, Republicans, and even neoliberal, traditional Democrats. His supporters roar in support when he rails against "the corporate elite" and "billionaire class" that, in his words, are "getting pretty nervous" about his campaign's success. 

This bloc, according to Sanders and his supporters, is not only the biggest problem in American politics but his biggest obstacle to winning the nomination.

Bloomberg and others have said that Sanders' hasn't done enough to calm supporters and surrogates online, which can be projected into a larger critique in his ability to unite the party, should he win the nomination. At the same time, Sanders' platform is unmistakably pro-working class and anti-elite, something he will surely emphasize when debating Bloomberg. 

WHAT TO WATCH: How will these two foils play inside the debate hall? A candidate who rails against the type of privilege that got one opponent to the stage, or a candidate who has unlimited resources to deploy in the fight against President Trump. 

ELIZABETH WARREN

CBS News campaign reporter Zak Hudak: Warren needs momentum, and the debate stage in Nevada may offer her a fleeting chance to regain it. In the last debate, Warren spoke less than any candidate who will be on the stage on Wednesday, except Bloomberg, who did not debate in New Hampshire. And after coming in third place in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, attention to Warren has been dwindling, with a national press corps that's now reduced to major outlets. 

But Warren will also be joined for the first time by the single Democratic candidate she's shown no hesitation to criticize, Bloomberg. Warren, whose campaign message is centered around getting money's taint out of politics, has gone so far as to suggest that the billionaire Bloomberg is running solely to try to avoid paying the wealth tax she's proposed. 

After Bloomberg made the debate, Warren tweeted that "at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire." That said, Bloomberg has been a target for several of the candidates who will be on the stage, and Warren is likely to be drowned out if she doesn't find a way to get more speaking time.

Meanwhile, Warren has literally lost her voice over the past few days and has been recovering from a cold. In order to get some rest, Warren's events have been briefer than they typically are. But by the time she addressed a culinary union event in Las Vegas Tuesday night, she had mostly regained her voice.

WHAT TO WATCH: Will Warren be able to reenter the conversation when her anti-corruption platform is juxtaposed with Bloomberg's money-first campaign?

STATE-BY-STATE

NEVADA

In a briefing with reporters late Tuesday, the Nevada State Democratic Party showcased a new "caucus calculator" Democrats hope will smooth tabulation and reporting for Nevada in the wake of Iowa Democrats' failure to report any of their caucus results on the night of their voting contest two weeks ago. 

However, CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin says key questions remain unanswered about the party-run process here in the final days before the caucuses on Saturday, February 22. As first detailed by The Nevada Independent, the tool consists of a series of Google Forms and links to read-only previews of Google Sheets that assist caucus chairs in determining viability and realignment at each precinct. 

Accessed through links on iPads provided by the party, the tool is supposed to instantly combine volunteers' entries of in-person results at each precinct with early votes already tabulated by the state party, displaying them in spreadsheets accessed through the embedded 4G connections for each tablet. 

The state party has begun to train volunteers and campaigns on using the tool in person and through training slides posted online by the state party. The iPads will be distributed through site leads in the coming days. The tool will not be able to interact with live results until Saturday, the day of the caucuses. 

Volunteers began practicing with the calculator Tuesday night, party officials said, with some 80 training sessions scheduled through the rest of the week. The party said that results from the four days of early voting are being scanned "similar to a scantron," and the scans would be audited to ensure the results are being recorded accurately. 

Party officials on Wednesday said they were unaware of any errors in the automatic scanning process. CBS affiliate KLAS reported Tuesday that some ballots for early caucus voting had been invalidated, in some cases because they were missing a signature. The party said Tuesday that 65 ballots had been invalidated because voters had not selected the minimum three candidates, as required for early voters.  

As a backup, officials said precinct chairs will be provided with a printed, anonymized list of ballots for their precincts summarizing the scanned preferences for each caucus-goer. Chairs will not have access that allows them to see original early votes or photocopies.

The state party said Wednesday that 70,000 Democrats had voted early in the state, suggesting turnout could be high on Saturday. In 2016, a total of 84,000 participated in the Nevada caucuses. Some campaigns reported delays in receiving early voting turnout data supplied through a data service called VAN, complaining that the service lagged publicly announced figures. Nevada Democratic Party officials declined to answer questions on this. 

Multiple campaign aides told CBS News they suspect the delay was due to a manual data entry step in tallying the early votes, when preference cards were attached to their home precincts. The party also denied reports of iPads crashing at the early vote sites, which some blamed for contributing to hours-long lines at locations throughout the state.  

The state party has chalked up the delays to unprecedented voter engagement and security checks. But volunteers said a shortage of volunteers, an inefficiently designed process, and poor information-sharing between sites also led to the frustrating wait times. 

And the party declined to answer most of the specific questions about the reporting process, a key factor in the Iowa results snafu. It did, however deny that the "caucus calculator" would play a role in reporting results, despite the fact that it appears to populate a spreadsheet in the state party's cloud with results from caucus sites. In fact, the reporting process is set up to be fairly low-tech. 

In memos released to the press and in caucus training sessions, chairs have been instructed to report results on the day of the caucuses by calling a "reporting hotline" with a secret passphrase and texting a photo of their documents to the state party.

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