WASHINGTON – The unofficial end of summer kicks off a more intense phase of a Democratic presidential race that has been led by moderate Joe Biden, with progressives Bernie Sanders and …
WASHINGTON – The unofficial end of summer kicks off a more intense phase of a Democratic presidential race that has been led by moderate Joe Biden, with progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in a battle for second as the rest of the sprawling field struggles to break through.
"There's a real sense that time is running out after Labor Day," said Alex Conant, a public relations consultant who was a top aide on the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. "Voters become more engaged. Before Labor Day most voters are content to watch the show. After Labor Day they start picking a team."
He added, "Especially if you're a second- or third-tier candidate who's been waiting to make a move, the time is now."
Democrats have essentially culled the field to a four-person race with a few wild cards showing signs of life and others hanging by a thread. Party members are eager to nominate a candidate they believe can beat President Donald Trump, keeping Biden atop polls even amid concerns about his age and propensity for gaffes. Sanders and Warren are behind, splitting Democrats hungry for swift and far-reaching progressive change, while Kamala Harris has settled into a distant fourth place.
No one else is polling above 10% in a field that has in recent weeks dwindled from 24 to 19.
At the same time, the economy remains strong but shows signs of sputtering that make Trump allies nervous.
The upcoming debate Sept. 12 in Houston will be the first time all the front-runners are on the stage together. Many are anticipating a confrontation between Biden and Warren, who've never shared the podium but have a contentious history and represent a stark choice between the moderate and liberal wings of the party.
Over the summer, Warren was the only top-tier candidate who avoided any clashes with her main rivals, steering clear of the fights over Medicare for All and 1970s segregation that saw Biden, Sanders and Harris all squabbling.
So far, Biden's resilient lead has defied critics who suggested that the third-time presidential candidate was on track for another flameout. Unlike during his previous campaigns, defeating Trump is the overarching goal for many Democrats and Biden benefits from a perception that he's best-positioned to recapture the swing states that Democrats lost in 2016.
Voters "kind of know he's the guy who can win important swing voters," said John Anzalone, Biden's pollster and adviser. "They feel like there's too much risk in some of the candidates who might be considered more left."
Some Democrats roll their eyes at Biden's "electability" argument, saying the lack of intensity behind his campaign risks the party being unable to galvanize voters behind a fresh vision.
"Oh, Democrats. It's so painful. We're so inside our own heads," said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist. "Democrats are so desperate to win that we don't even trust our own judgment. Maybe instead of making some giant calculation of who could win what vote, vote for the person who inspires you."
After Harris, there's Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has raked in vast sums of money but remains stuck in fifth. Five other candidates will complete at the Houston debate but they're all placing under 3% in the polls.
Another candidate could yet vault into the top tier. Lower-polling candidates on the September debate stage – including Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Beto O'Rourke – are better positioned to create or take advantage of an opportunity.
Several candidates who might have been formidable in a different climate have already dropped out, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
The Democratic National Committee has eagerly tried to prevent the perception that it's putting its thumb on the scale like it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But that hasn't stopped some struggling candidates from grumbling about its rules.
"I feel very excited about where we are now. We've got a deep field, we are talking about the issues and that's what we're supposed to be doing," DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in an interview. "The energy is everywhere."
Henry Singleton, an NAACP member from New York City said Harris is "a force" but he worries she'd suffer the same fate as Clinton did in 2016.
"Our people are very comfortable with him, with his demeanor," Singleton said of Biden. He just has a flair. And I think he would be the one to really, really go after Donald Trump in the debates."
Democrats could come to demand more of Biden as a growing number of polls show other Democrats could beat Trump.
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 54% of registered voters said they'd vote for Biden, while 38% said they would vote for Trump. But Sanders would also win the popular vote, 53% to 39%; as would Warren at 52% to 40%, Harris at 51% to 40%, and Buttigieg at 49% to 40%.
"One of the overwhelming things I hear about Joe Biden is that he definitely acts and talks his age _ which isn't necessarily a bad thing for some voters, but for other voters, especially for younger voters, is not appealing," said Bryce Smith, the chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party in Iowa, just outside Des Moines.
"He might have some really good ideas," he said, "but the way he talks about them may not be as motivating or energizing as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders who are similar in age."
(With assistance from Emma Kinery.)