Only seven Democratic presidential candidates — the fewest yet — will take the stage at Loyola Marymount University on Thursday night, with 46 days to go until the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. remains the leading candidate in national polls, but three candidates are within striking distance, particularly in Iowa: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Here is what to watch for:
How long is the shadow of impeachment?
The debate comes only 24 hours after the historic impeachment of President Trump. There is little daylight or disagreement among the seven Democrats on whether Mr. Trump should have been impeached. But how they approach their answers — whether they sell themselves as the best candidate to “prosecute the case,” as Senator Kamala Harris had put it (before dropping out), or as healers who can unite a fractured nation — will be revealing.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, the moderates in the top tier of candidates, have emphasized their ability to bring the country together; the pro-Biden super PAC advertising in Iowa is called “Unite the Country,” after all. Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren have focused more on how Mr. Trump is symptomatic of a fundamentally broken system.
Democratic voters rarely bring up impeachment at campaign events, so the candidates may feel there’s little political upside in dwelling on it. But many voters are also still unsure which candidate is best suited to take on Mr. Trump in the general election. Mounting an anti-Trump argument is a chance for candidates to show how they might take him on as the party’s 2020 standard-bearer.
Impeachment’s shadow will impact more than just the debate. A coming Senate trial in January could force three of the candidates onstage — Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — off the trail, along with two other senators in the 2020 race who missed the debate cut, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet.
Can Biden deliver?
Mr. Biden’s durability atop the polls has often seemed disconnected to the debates rather than the result of his performance in them. Mr. Biden has lamented to supporters that these monthly face-offs have hardly showcased the best of what he has to offer, saying that with ten candidates — and once 12 — these have hardly been debates at all.
But after five debates, Mr. Biden has had plenty of practice: He’s no longer rusty at this format, and he should know his talking points and his opponents’ weaknesses at this point. A commanding performance could quell the quiet rumblings about Mr. Biden’s abilities and long-term strength, especially now that a new challenge awaits him after the first four nominating contests: A fellow moderate, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, is now carpet-bombing the Super Tuesday primary states with advertising.
Onstage, Mr. Biden will stand between his two leading liberal challengers, a dynamic that offers him a chance at a clear contrast. It also carries risk, if Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders provide a one-two punch of populist progressivism against his moderate policy positions.
Will Warren recapture momentum?
Only two months ago, Ms. Warren arrived at the October debate as an Iowa front-runner and the candidate with the most political momentum. But multiple rivals criticized and challenged her in that debate, particularly over her lack of a “Medicare for all” financing plan at the time, and it marked the beginning of a downturn that the Warren campaign is still trying to arrest.
Ms. Warren has more pointedly began picking apart the records of her rivals — mostly Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, among those onstage — but she has often seemed reluctant to bluntly and directly criticize them. In a recent speech, she preferred to leave her rivals’ names out of the address even when it was clear whom she was talking about.
Ms. Warren rose to the top of the field in large part by ignoring the punches being thrown all around her; recall she was not even onstage for the infamous clash between Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden at the June debates. The question is if that restrained approach would still prove effective this deep into the calendar, or if Ms. Warren will take a different tact.
Will Buttigieg skate or suffer?
As he has risen in the polls, Mr. Buttigieg has picked some strategic fights with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, chiefly over making public college free and eliminating private insurance. But despite expectations that he would be the main target in the November debate, his top rivals ignored him for most of it.
That could change on Thursday night, especially as Ms. Warren has begun trying to link Mr. Buttigieg to the wealthy donor class and Mr. Sanders’s campaign has highlighted some of the more sumptuous locations for Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raisers.
The candidate who most directly confronted Mr. Buttigieg in the last debate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, will not be onstage. Ms. Klobuchar dismissed him as a “local” official a month ago, but he responded by whacking at Washington. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Mr. Buttigieg in the 2020 primary is not one of his rivals onstage, it is finding a way to win support among black voters.