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What To Watch For During The 4th Democratic Debate


The impeachment inquiry and President Trump's efforts to get foreign governments to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden provide an unusual backdrop to tonight's Democratic presidential debate. NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow are with us from Westerville, Ohio, where 12 candidates, including Biden, are taking the stage tonight.

Hi, Scott and Mara.



SHAPIRO: This has become a really dynamic race on a number of fronts. Let's start with Biden. Today we heard from Hunter Biden for the first time in an interview with ABC News. He said he exercised poor judgment but did nothing wrong.


HUNTER BIDEN: Did I make a mistake? Well, maybe in the grand scheme of things, yeah, but did I make a mistake based upon some unethical lapse? Absolutely not.

SHAPIRO: And yesterday, former Vice President Joe Biden announced an anti-corruption policy plan, and he used that to attack the Trump administration. He calls it the most corrupt administration in modern history. Mara, what do you make of how Biden is handling this heading into the debate?

LIASSON: I think Biden is trying to answer a real chorus of calls from Democrats who have been begging him to be more aggressive about this to use it as a kind of jujitsu to show that he is the best person to go up against Donald Trump. That's kind of the rationale of his whole candidacy. And this is something the Democrats say they haven't been seeing from Biden, even though he has been getting a little bit more aggressive bit by bit.

SHAPIRO: And what about the other candidates, Scott? How do you see them handling this? It's a very delicate issue for them.

DETROW: You know, I feel like in previous debates, criticizing Joe Biden has almost been the defining characteristic of the debates, other candidates going after Biden's age, his previous policies on race, on gender, other things. But when it comes to criticizing Biden and his family for these things that President Trump is attacking him on, there's been a real reluctance from Democrats. I think that's really summed up by an answer that Elizabeth Warren gave in the days after this all came to a head, asked would she allow her vice president's son or family member to hold a position on a foreign company like Hunter Biden did.


ELIZABETH WARREN: No. I don't - I don't know. I mean, I'd have to go back and look at the details.

LIASSON: No other Democratic candidate wants to look like they're prosecuting the president's attacks on Biden because the president's attacks have been debunked. Now, is there a legitimate concern that there was an appearance of impropriety with Hunter Biden being on the board of a Ukrainian company when Ukraine was in his father's portfolio as vice president? Yes. Hunter himself acknowledged that in his ABC interview. But I think there is a reluctance on the part of other candidates to use this as their own attack against Biden. I do think, however, the moderators of this debate are going to bring it up a lot.

SHAPIRO: So Elizabeth Warren heads into this debate with a lot of organization and money built up. She has effectively ended Biden's claim on being the only front-runner in this primary race. Mara, do you think that she is overcoming those questions we heard earlier in the race about electability?

LIASSON: No, I don't. I think that Democrats are telling pollsters that they see her as more electable, but there is a real undercurrent of worry that she is too far left to beat Donald Trump in a general election. She's taken a lot of positions that are 2-to-1 unpopular with general election voters. She wants to institute mandatory "Medicare for All." That means an end to private health insurance. She's for banning fracking. I don't know how well that goes over in the parts of Pennsylvania that are not the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh suburbs. And there have been some culture war issues where she has come down pretty much on the left.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi, Senator. Thank you for being here.

LIASSON: There was a moment in a recent LGBTQ forum on CNN where she was asked by an activist what she would say to someone who believes that marriage is between one man and one woman.


WARREN: Well, I'm going to assume it's a guy who said that.


WARREN: And I'm going to say then just marry one woman.


WARREN: I'm cool with that.

LIASSON: She got a big applause, but she didn't leave it there.


WARREN: Assuming you can find one.


LIASSON: The first part of that answer was just fine - so just marry one woman. The second part - assuming you can find one - sounded like she was saying that anyone who has those beliefs is either a loser or maybe deplorable.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, this is also going to be the first time that many voters have seen Senator Bernie Sanders since he had a heart attack. Scott, he has not been doing campaign events since that happened two weeks ago. Does he seem worried about the future of his campaign?

DETROW: His campaign is really going out of its way to show that Bernie Sanders has remained active even if he hasn't been on the campaign trail, including videos of him playing baseball in his backyard. They had a timestamp on that video as if to say like, look. It's today. He's out there right now playing baseball.


BERNIE SANDERS: All right. Good catch.

DETROW: But this is the first big test of Bernie Sanders in something that is a high-stress, high-pressure environment, no matter what your age and what your health level, standing on national television for several hours going at it with a lot of other candidates.

SHAPIRO: Well, apart from Sanders, Warren and Biden, there are going to be nine other candidates on that stage. What are you looking for tonight?

DETROW: Well, Mara has framed this the Biden understudy primary, right? There are so many candidates whose path to the nomination really runs through Joe Biden's starting to fade. They've been waiting and waiting all spring, all summer for that to happen. It hasn't happened. There have been a few signs that Biden is looking more vulnerable, though. He's been dropping in the polls a little bit. And he's been outraised by a lot of other candidates. So it seems like it's a now-or-never moment for some of these candidates. I think the top of the list is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who's been spending a ton of time in Iowa. Kamala Harris has been trying to double down on Iowa as she's faded in the polls as well. I think you could include Cory Booker in this list as well.

LIASSON: Yeah. I think Pete Buttigieg is definitely at the top of the heap when it comes to the Biden understudy battle. He's been taking some pokes at Elizabeth Warren, saying that she's been evasive about how she's going to pay for some of these plans.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: The answer to that question of whether her plan and Senator Sanders' plan will raise middle-class taxes is yes. Why you wouldn't just say so and then explain why you think that's the better way forward?

LIASSON: The directed frontal attacks on Biden that some candidates have tried haven't worked. Big question is, will somebody try a similar kind of attack on Elizabeth Warren? I would say if anybody does that, it would probably be Pete Buttigieg.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow in Westerville, Ohio, where they are covering tonight's debate. Thank you.

DETROW: Sure thing.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: That CNN/New York Times Democratic presidential debate is at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. It airs live on CNN. And you can hear it on many NPR stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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