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2020 Daily Trail Markers: What to look for in Thursday's Democratic debate

Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Texas

FROM THE CANDIDATES

JOE BIDEN

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER BO ERICKSON "If you ever played 'King of the Hill' that's what the debate is to me," International Association of Firefighters General President Harold Schaitberger told CBS News. "Everybody else has to pull the king down off the hill." 

Schaitberger is one of Joe Biden's biggest backers. He's the head of the 318,000 firefighters union who endorsed the former vice president earlier this year. Schaitberger thinks Biden "needs to be very assertive" on healthcare to draw a clear contrast between his healthcare plan and those of the competition.

After union members over the summer expressed concerns their negotiated plans would be limited under "Medicare-for-All" plans, Schaitberger said some of Biden's rivals have "come toward Joe Biden's position on this issue" to protect union-negotiated plans. Will Biden highlight this?

How will Warren's steady rise in the polls play out on the debate stage with Biden? This is their first debate together, a match-up his campaign last week called an "irrelevant" media narrative, since there are eight other candidates on stage. Will the others try to slow Warren down? She undoubtedly received the rowdiest welcome this weekend at New Hampshire Democratic convention, which is just next door to the state she represents. Nonetheless, Schaitberger argues "the majority of the voting Democratic primary constituents are much more in Joe Biden's lane than the energy and the excitement that is witnessed at some of these rallies or at the convention floor."

Will Biden's long record on racial issues be questioned again? This upcoming debate is at the second-largest HBCU in the country and throughout the summer Biden has maintained his substantial lead with black voters. "I think his long record on racial issues is what is working for him," Schaitberger said. He  added, "I think there's a view that those who want to take a shot in that arena should be careful, as I think it could be viewed as a cheap shot, and it would be counter-productive."

CORY BOOKER 

VIA CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN: Booker has been polling in the single digits as he enters the third presidential debate in Houston. A recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll showed that in Iowa and New Hampshire Booker attracted just 2% support among likely voters.

Booker has had the resources and staff on the ground in both states earlier in the election cycle. Asked in New Hampshire on Friday about his preparations in the upcoming debate, Booker said he's going to be following the same advice he received before the second debate, which is to "go out there and be yourself."

The New Jersey senator argues that the differences among any of the Democrats is "miniscule" and that this election isn't about "having the right policy plans." For him, the 2020 election a "moral moment" and is urging voters toward bigger change and a "civic grace."  

The question for him is whether he can make that argument resonate with voters in this third debate. If not, he's likely to remain mired in the low single digits. 

PETE BUTTIGIEG

VIA CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN: Seven percent of likely voters in Iowa would pick Buttigieg today, according the CBS News Battleground Tracker poll. And in New Hampshire, Buttigieg garnered eight percent support. 

On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has been saying that his campaign is entering a new phase. He's ramping up his staffing and recently announced opening 20 campaign offices in 20 days in Iowa and 12 campaign offices in New Hampshire. 

In a press gaggle in New Hampshire this past weekend, Buttigieg said he and his team feel "energized" heading into the debate. "You can tell in this post-Labor Day phase. We're just at a new level with the campaign," Buttigieg said. 

Buttigieg has delivered solid, if less memorable performances than some of his competitors in the first two debates. The question for him is, will he have a "moment" at the debate that will allow the ground game to organize and materialize support? 

JULIAN CASTRO

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER TIM PERRY Castro has continued to expand his campaign and name recognition after two strong debate performances.  Since the last debate, Castro has continued to release policy proposals and participate in candidate forums, but has yet to break through to the top tier.  

Castro campaign spokesman Sawyer Hackett tells CBS News that during this debate Castro plans to make the case to voters that he "is the candidate that can best bring out the Obama coalition: young, minority and enthusiastic voters in states not typically won by Democrats." Can Castro use the debate in his home state of Texas to finally catapult him into the upper tier of Democratic candidates?

KAMALA HARRIS

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER STEPHANIE RAMIREZ This debate is another opportunity for Kamala Harris to introduce herself to voters. With Elizabeth Warren on the debate stage for the first time against Joe Biden, it's not as likely we'll see a Harris-Biden match-up Thursday. Harris takes the stage this week after a gaffe in New Hampshire last weekend she later apologized for and following a drop in her standing in the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, which also found supporters leaving Harris in favor of Warren and Biden. 

Harris will be heading into this third debate with new policies to tout, including her climate change and criminal justice reform plans. Campaign spokesperson Ian Sams tell CBS News the focus Thursday will be on defeating President Donald Trump as well as "bringing the country together by defeating him and unifying Americans around solutions to our common challenges."  Sams added, "She'll make the connection between his hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country."

AMY KLOBUCHAR

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER BO ERICKSON At recent events the Minnesota senator has dubbed this third debate the "playoffs." While she'll physically be on the far left of the Thursday debate stage, her supporters have questioned to CBS News if it's better to politically use this debate opportunity to strike a blow to the more progressive-left ideas that she thinks are not feasible than continue to articulate the consensus issues she champions? Other Klobuchar supporters say that while they like her more moderate stances on some issues, almost all say they like her "Minnesota nice" personality. Yet congenial moments have not been highly rewarded in the past two debates – and if this is playoff season she will need a win of some sort to stay in the game.

BETO O'ROURKE

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER TIM PERRY Since the last debate, O'Rourke was forced to relaunch his campaign in the wake of the shooting in his hometown of El Paso. O'Rourke has shifted his campaign style and has made attacking President Trump and gun control central issues of his campaign.  

A campaign spokesperson tells CBS News, "At the debate, Beto will be communicating the same message he's been bringing to the trail the last few weeks: telling the stories of communities and people that Democrats often count out, taking the fight directly to Donald Trump, calling for bold solutions on gun violence." This will include O'Rourke's newfound call for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.  He is still the only 2020 candidate with this position. 

While O'Rourke struggled in his previous debates and failed to "get a moment," a spokesperson says "he's not going to engage in stunts and one-liners, or indulge attempts by the moderators to pit candidates against each other for the benefit of good TV. The seriousness of the moment demands more than that." Will Beto be able to control the conversation on gun control and emerge from Thursday's debate as the candidate with the sharpest and clearest ideas on that particular issue?

BERNIE SANDERS

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER CARA KORTE He "wrote the damn bill." That was Bernie Sanders' triumphant moment in last month's debate, when he defended his signature issue, Medicare-for-All. The Sanders campaign is hoping that he replicates that moment on Thursday. Sanders' challenge this election is defending his progressive turf and showing voters that he's the greatest champion of the left. Healthcare, climate, workers' rights — he's got a plan for it all and will be selling it Thursday night. But Sanders' viral line from the last debate came in response to a protesting Tim Ryan. He's not on this stage. Neither is Senator Michael Bennet, nor any other outspoken moderate standing on the outskirts of current polling. If Sanders doesn't have a foil on stage, can he create a spark without friction? 

ELIZABETH WARREN

VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER ZAK HUDAK This debate is a big one for Elizabeth Warren because it's the first time she'll be on the same stage as Joe Biden. And it's happening as polls increasingly show her within striking distance of the former vice president. We saw in the last round that Warren and her rival in the progressive wing of the party, Bernie Sanders, are reluctant to attack one another. But Warren's goal of "big structural change" is at odds with Biden's moderate message in a way it isn't with Sanders' progressive one. Thursday night will almost certainly illustrate how different Warren and Biden are.

ANDREW YANG

VIA CBS NEWS POLITICAL UNIT AP SARAH EWALL-WICE 
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has been one of the surprise undercard candidates to qualify for the debate, but he has a prime podium position on the stage between two candidates more well known to political circles: Senator Kamala Harris and former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke.  On Saturday, Yang told supporters outside the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention that he had been preparing for the event with a mock debate including people playing the roles of the other candidates. He hinted there could be a surprise in store.

Will Yang be able to use the debate stage to expand his supporter base, known as the "Yang Gang," or will he be overshadowed by all the other top contenders on one stage?

EARLY STATES

DOWN SOUTH

South Carolina Democratic voters continue to be concerned with healthcare, climate change and the economy. Ahead of this week's debate, voters like kindergarten teacher Glenna Broughton, say they hope these topics continue to resurface. "I want something to make sure that our kids are able to succeed whether it's universal pre-K and also getting them ready for college," Broughton told CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell.

Tim Lewis, an advocate for rural communities, says that current foreign policy has removed the U.S. from the world stage. Any candidate who wants Lewis' vote needs to be able to articulate his or her "big picture" for the country. "I think our president should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time and they should be able to handle and prioritize multiple issues," Lewis opined.

Nonprofit director Amy Brennan says that she'll be watching and listening for the moral integrity of each candidate. "I don't need to hear you bashing the candidate next to you for me to feel good about you, I want to hear about you," said Brennan. "Right now we're in a mess and we need somebody who's going to put all the pieces back together."

IN THE MIDDLE

CBS News campaign reporters Musadiq Bidar & Adam Brewster say they're starting to see more endorsements rolling out in Iowa. 

On Tuesday, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled a list of endorsements from 11 elected officials, former elected officials and Democratic activists. That includes former state representative and senator Jean Lloyd-Jones. The endorsement from 90-year-old Lloyd-Jones, a trailblazer for women's rights in the Hawkeye state, was the first Iowa endorsement the Buttigieg campaign publicly announced in a press release. 

"He represents a generation far removed from mine, and he sees the world with new eyes," Lloyd-Jones said in a statement. 

Also this week, Senator Amy Klobuchar picked up her third state representative endorsement, from Molly Donahue. Donahue flipped a Republican held state house district in the Cedar Rapids area. Klobuchar and Joe Biden each have endorsements from three state legislators and trail only Senator Cory Booker. Six state legislators have endorsed Booker.

BY THE NUMBERS

PRE-DEBATE POLLING

On the eve of the Houston debate, Quinnipiac University released a Democratic primary poll for Texas, notes CBS News Political Unit associate producer Sarah Ewall-Wice, which shows Joe Biden topping the field with 28% of Democratic voters and independent voters who lean Democratic. Elizabeth Warren was in second place, with 18%, while Bernie Sanders and Texan Beto O'Rourke attracted 12%. 

Biden's support in the poll has dropped off a little from the 30% he had in June in this poll, and O'Rourke has also dropped 4 percentage points. Warren was the only one of the top contenders whose support has risen since June. She had 11% support in June. Sanders also dropped, compared to the 15% support he attracted in the earlier poll. 

Univision News also released a poll Tuesday. It showed that a majority of national Hispanic registered voters say they plan to vote for a Democrat, and they favor Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.

CBS News Political Unit associate producer Ellee Watson notes Hispanic voters could hold significant sway over the 2020 presidential election on a national scale, and that's especially the case in Texas. In 2018, two in five voters in Texas were Hispanic, and the number of Hispanic registered voters grew nearly twice as much as non-Hispanics between 2014 and 2018. 

The poll released by Univision News was conducted by Latino Decisions and Northstar Opinion and surveyed 1,043 national registered Hispanic voters from August 31 to September 6. The margin of error for the national poll is +/-3 percent. 

President Trump's approval rating among Latino registered voters stands at 22 percent, and 62 percent of American Hispanics say they are certain to vote for a Democrat in 2020. Of the Democratic candidates, Biden and Sanders lead the pack with 22 and 20 percent favorability respectively. Univision's Poll Director Dr. Sergio Garcia-Rios told reporters on a call that he has seen an increase in support for Senator Elizabeth Warren from 44 percent in June to 53 percent at the end of August.

IN OTHER NEWS

GOP WATCH

While top Democratic presidential candidates are all gathered in Houston to debate, the Republican National Committee will be taking part in counterprogramming efforts, says CBS News Political Unit associate producer Sarah Ewall-Wice. According to an RNC official, chairwoman Ronna McDaniel will be responding to debates with op-eds in English, Spanish and Mandarin. She will also join Trump campaign officials in Houston on Thursday to attend the Latinos for Trump "Vamos to Victory" event with about 100 attendees. The RNC will also be monitoring the debate and surrounding commentary to fact check and respond in real time.

REPUBLICAN WINS LAST HOUSE SEAT OF 2018

CBS News Political Unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro and associate producer Ellee Watson report GOP North Carolina State Senator Dan Bishop won the last 2018 House seat late Tuesday night against Democrat Dan McCready in a high-profile Congressional special election that both national parties were watching closely. 

The 9th District contains parts of the Charlotte suburbs, which Democrats were eyeing to see if changing populations would affect traditionally red suburbs that voted for Mr. Trump. McCready did see in increase from 2018 in Mecklenberg County, which contains parts of the Charlotte suburbs. However, he did failed to turn out the Democratic vote in more rural counties he won in 2018, such as Richmond and Cumberland county.

The special election was a do-over of the November 2018 midterm election which was voided over allegations of ballot fraud. 

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