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2020 Daily Trail Markers: What to look for at Wednesday's Democratic debate

CBS News poll shows tight race in Iowa
CBS News poll: Buttigieg surges in Iowa but struggles with black voters 13:00

On Wednesday night in Atlanta at the fifth Democratic presidential debate, candidates will likely be asked to respond to comments former President Obama made on Friday cautioning against radical change. During an interview with Stacey Abrams, Mr. Obama said, "This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. They like seeing things improved, but the average American doesn't think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it."

The remarks were first reported by the New York Times.  

CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson says several of the candidates were asked about this over the weekend but did not bite. 

Senator Cory Booker says he wants to stop delineating left from right and said the nominee should have the full support of the party to defeat President Trump. Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose tagline is "big, structural change," said she "is so grateful for what Obama did" on healthcare and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he agreed with the premise of Mr. Obama's comments and said the role of activists is to lead the country forward but politicians must still balance competing constituencies.   

The candidates will likely have to answer whether the party is in a place to win over the roughly eight million voters who went for Mr. Obama in 2012 and Mr. Trump in 2016 as well as motivate turnout among African Americans and Latinos, a major problem for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats scored big wins in Louisiana and Kentucky's gubernatorial races this month. But in both cases, the Democratic candidates did not focus on the ambitious policies frequently discussed in the primary field, such as Medicare for All.

Mr. Obama was also a topic of discussion at the debate in July when candidates argued over whether or not Obamacare went far enough as well as that administration's immigration policies. On Friday, Mr. Obama indirectly responded to those comments in his interview with Abrams.

"I don't take it as a criticism when people say hey, it's great, Obama did what he did and now we want to do more. That's the point."

Is President Obama right – do Americans want more gradual change?

In this special DEBATE edition of Trail Markers, the CBS News Political Unit gives a rundown of what to watch for from the 10 presidential candidates who made it to the stage plus other political news of the day.



VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER BO ERICKSON While Democrats are united in criticizing Mr. Trump for asking the Ukrainian government to investigate the Biden family, it's a much more personal topic for the former vice president. 

With the House impeachment hearings in full force, Biden has continued to defend himself and his son, Hunter, from the Trump administration's allegations of wrongdoing in Ukraine. The keen interest the administration has taken in the Bidens is now a main topic of the former vice president's trail speeches, where it is cited as proof that the president thinks Biden would be his toughest general election opponent. 

At Wednesday's debate, Biden can be expected to try and turn Mr. Trump's accusations into an advantage. And the former vice president also says that Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are worried about a potential Biden presidency. North Korean state media recently called Biden a "rabid dog," a phrase Biden laughs at. 

By highlighting both Mr. Trump's request to Ukraine and the barbs from foreign adversaries—whom he calls "thugs"—Biden underscores his foreign policy experience, which he sees as a key selling point to voters. Having spent much of the last 50 years as a powerful lawmaker steeped in foreign policy discussions, he says he knows intimately what makes leaders like Kim and Putin tick. Will he proactively start contrasting this record with the other Democrats?


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN At a Nevada Democrats First in the West event Sunday night, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said the presidential election is "not about left or right. It is about right and wrong." At the last debate, Booker kept his focus on Mr. Trump and mostly avoided criticizing his fellow Democrats. And at a California Democratic Party Convention in Long Beach this past weekend, Booker reiterated that Democrats need to concentrate on winning back the White House instead of infighting. "I'm happy to be in this field and plan on winning, but the one thing I'm going to stop is us tearing each other down," Booker told reporters. After months of struggling in the polls, will Booker look to throw some punches at his Democratic competitors? Or will he continue to focus on Mr. Trump? 


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew sharp contrasts with his progressive competitors, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, on health care in the last debate. In contrast to Warren and Sanders' embrace of "Medicare for All," which would eliminate most private insurance plans, Buttigieg's health care plan calls for a public option and does not eliminate private insurance plans. 

Buttigieg specifically asked Warren if her plan would increase taxes on middle class families, which the Massachusetts Senator has been loath to admit. "Your signature senator is to have a plan for everything, except this," Buttigieg said at the last debate. 

Ahead of Wednesday's debate, Warren has released two more plans on health care: one indicating that her plan would not increase taxes on middle class families and the other detailing a health care bill that includes an expansive public option that she says she would work to pass before Medicare for All. Meanwhile, two polls in the last week, including a CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, showed Buttigieg rising in Iowa. And with less than 80 days until the Iowa caucus, Buttigieg's competitors may start redirecting their fire toward the millennial mayor. How will Buttigieg fend off potential attacks now that polling shows him in the top tier of candidates?


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who memorably dinged California Senator Kamala Harris at a debate earlier this year, went on the attack against Elizabeth Warren in the last debate. Gabbard has redirected her focus to Hillary Clinton since then, a response to the former Democratic nominee's insinuation that the dovish congresswoman is a "favorite of the Russians." Gabbard's campaign lawyer released a letter to Clinton, who recently indicated that she could still run for president, saying that she defamed Gabbard and demanded a retraction. Will Gabbard try to criticize Warren again and will she continue to go after Clinton? 


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER TIM PERRY Heading into the debate, Kamala Harris has seen a sharp decline in her poll numbers and has had to make major layoffs and changes with her staff. When asked how she plans to prepare for such a crucial debate, Harris jokingly said "prayer," but added, "I'm going to just be present."  

While Pete Buttigieg continues to surge in the polls, Harris took her first jab at the South Bend mayor when asked about reports of his campaign using a stock photograph of a Kenyan woman on his website to promote a plan targeted at African Americans. Though Harris laughed at the report, she warned that the Democratic nominee must have to have the ability to "unify the party and the country," and added "and you can't unify folks if you don't understand who they are and their specific needs and the right that they have to be represented based not on a stock photograph, but [on] who they actually are." Is this the sign of more attacks to come in the surging mayor's direction? 


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER BO ERICKSON If the past is any indication, a solid debate performance by Klobuchar could lead to more money and a bounce in the polls. The Minnesota senator had her best fundraising spree ever after the last debate, quickly raising $1.1 million dollars. 

Since then, other candidates like Harris and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro have changed their campaign strategies to free-up cash and refocus their efforts. Klobuchar, meanwhile, recently boasted in New Hampshire that while her campaign prides itself on being "frugal," they were looking to add staffers and offices, at least in Iowa. The big moments for Klobuchar at the last debate were her strong but polite criticisms of some progressive policies, such as Medicare for All and forgiving student loans. Klobuchar argues that she can deliver better, more politically realistic policies, such as a public option for healthcare and free community college. What will be the key policy difference she highlights this time? 


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER CARA KORTE The big question in last month's debate for Bernie Sanders was how he would perform just a few weeks after his heart attack, a test he passed easily. Since then, Sanders has seen bumps in polling while Warren has struggled. 

How can he keep that momentum rolling in the debate? Essentially, just by maintaining his status quo. His campaign argues that folks at home know Bernie Sanders. They know that his signature policy is Medicare for All. They know that he's 78 years old. 

The Sanders campaign says their path to victory is all about turnout, particularly among those who have never voted before. Young people, the working class, and people of color are the wind in Sanders' sails. 

Are those the voters watching on debate night? Perhaps. But it's more likely Sanders will speak reach these people on the trail, or through door knocking and phone banking. Still, Sanders needs those committed Democrats watching every debate night closely. Can he win them over with a winning debate performance? He hasn't had any major flubs yet on stage, so if they haven't come to him now, will they ever?  


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER ZAK HUDAK Tom Steyer's ad blitzes have kept him on the debate stage, but the billionaire climate activist will likely need earned media to rise above his middle-of-the-road polling numbers. The debate stage is an opportunity for him to tout his status as the earliest candidate to call for Mr. Trump's impeachment. But with campaign scandals in both Iowa and South Carolina since the last debate, Steyer could himself be a target for any opponent looking to score easy points


VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER ZAK HUDAK Over the past month, Elizabeth Warren has faced more criticism than at any point since the early days of her campaign. The drama began at the last debate when her opponents swung at her from all sides. 

Since then, she's released significant details on her plans to pay for Medicare for All and get congress to pass it. But that's opened her policies to new scrutiny. With the release of a 3-year plan leading up to a push for the original Medicare for All bill, Warren could face attacks from both her right and her left on where she now stands on health care. But while she walked onto the stage last month as the biggest target in the field, Buttigieg's recent polling surge in Iowa could distract some of the candidates looking for blood. Will her rivals continue to pile-on Warren, or will they move on to other top candidates like Biden and Buttigieg? 


VIA CBS NEWS POLITICAL UNIT ASSOCIATE PRODUCER BEN MITCHELL While Andrew Yang's poll numbers continue to hover somewhere between 2% and 4% in the early states, the campaign insists they're exactly where they want to be right now. Yang is still bringing in plenty of donations, his campaign is hiring new people every week and voters are still getting to know him, campaign staffer argue, which leaves room for growth. They also point to other campaigns that are hemorrhaging support and money. 

But in the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker, just 12% of all voters in the early primary and caucus states through Super Tuesday say they are considering Yang. The campaign has done well to build support in online communities, but it is trying to spread the candidate's message to a wider audience. Last week, the Yang campaign launched a 7-figure ad buy in the early primary states with glossy ads focused on his health care policies and economic populism. 

A strong debate performance, coupled with the massive buy, could provide a one-two punch for Yang and help him connect with voters who really haven't paid much attention to him yet. He will likely stick to his vision of "human-centered capitalism" to help workers navigate the changing economy and talk about his plan for "a new way forward" in the 21st century, but voters could also hear more personal stories from Yang. He's recently started branding himself as a "parent and a patriot" in his ads and on the
stump. But will this message resonate enough with voters to give the candidate a needed boost?  



Since entering the race last spring, former Joe Biden has slipped eight points in Iowa, according to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll. Biden continues to lead nationally and remains a top-tier candidate for his party's nomination, but in interviews during the first two weeks of November with a dozen top Democratic leaders, officials and strategists, many expressed concerns to CBS News campaign reporters Musadiq Bidar and Adam Brewster about Biden's standing in Iowa. 

"I wouldn't count him out, but there's certainly been some troubling signs," said former Democratic political operative Grant Woodard, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2008 Iowa campaign. A top Iowa Democrat said the former vice president doesn't have the "intensity of support" that other candidates have shown, adding, "If he's not in the top three it's over." 

Some Democratic leaders and officials cited other hurdles for Biden, such as his struggles with fundraising compared to other top candidates, issues with his campaign's organizing ability, and "lackluster" performances from Biden at campaign stops in Iowa. While several Democratic leaders and officials echoed that the campaign is "in trouble," many acknowledged that Biden has been able to hold on to his initial supporters.   

Biden repeatedly outpolls Mr. Trump in head-to-head matchups, including in pivotal states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. And a clear majority of Democratic voters say the ability to beat Mr. Trump is the single most important attribute a candidate can possess. Jesse Harris, Biden's senior Iowa adviser, said the campaign is looking to get Biden in front of as many Iowans as possible. In an attempt to reach a wider group of voters, Biden's team in Iowa is targeting not just previous caucus-goers and Democrats, but also independents and Republicans. 

Elsewhere in Iowa…

Senator Bernie Sanders opened eight new offices across the state this past weekend, according to the campaign. Sanders now has 22 offices and over 133 staffers on the ground, both among the most of any campaign in Iowa says Bidar. The campaign also says it knocked on more than 11,000 doors in the last 48 hours, adding to the over 100,000 doors they have knocked since the launch of the campaign. This comes after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for Sanders in Iowa this month. 

Over the weekend, the Sanders campaign also launched a second digital ad featuring Ocasio-Cortez. "We're building the largest grassroots movement of working class Iowans our state has ever seen," said Sander's Iowa Field Director Michael Fasullo in a statement. "With these new offices, we're expanding our reach across the state and giving our supporters the tools they need to bring new folks into the political process and win the caucus in February." 

And Senator Kamala Harris announced Monday that she will be spending Thanksgiving with her family in Iowa. Bidar notes that Harris has spent four days in Iowa this month and is scheduled to spend five days in the Hawkeye state during the week of Thanksgiving. According to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker, Harris is polling at 5% in Iowa, tied for fifth place with Amy Klobuchar. Harris's campaign says they have knocked on more than 200,000 doors in Iowa since August. "Day by day and door by door, we are continuing to grow our network of supporters, volunteers, and precinct leaders that form the heart of our campaign," said Iowa Organizing Director Erin Phillips. 



Democrat Governor John Bel Edwards will be the first Democrat governor to win reelection in Louisiana since 1975, after defeating Republican Eddie Rispone by just over one percent on Saturday. And after almost two days of no public acknowledgement from Mr. Trump's Twitter account, Edwards spokesperson Eric Holl told CBS News political unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro the president called to congratulate Edwards in private. At his election night watch party, CBS News political unit associate producer Sarah Ewall-Wice reports Edwards only mentioned Trump briefly in his remarks: "You didn't just vote for me, you voted for four more years of putting Louisiana first...And as for the president, God bless his heart." 

While Mr. Trump invested no small degree of political capital in the Louisiana and Kentucky only to watch Republicans come up short, neither deep-red state is expected to be competitive in 2020's presidential race. Still, national parties are looking for takeaways from Saturday's result.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a statement this weekend touting Edwards' emphasis on expanding Medicaid. "Governor John Bel Edwards earned a second term by working to make health care more affordable and accessible for the people he serves in Louisiana...House Republicans are likely reconsidering just how eager they are to rubber stamp President Trump's reckless agenda in Washington," said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos in a statement. 

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