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Democratic Primary Continues To Take Shape As Candidates Consolidate Power


If you took a break from politics over the summer, tomorrow night might be a good time to tune back in. A smaller group of Democratic presidential candidates are preparing to debate in Houston. And for the first time, you can watch the entire debate in one night.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about what the debate might tell us about the race to take on Donald Trump.

Hey, Mara.


CHANG: OK, so this is now the third time Democrats will be debating this year, so we're really not at the beginning of the campaign anymore. Can you just catch us up real quick on where things stand right now?

LIASSON: The field is shrinking. That's the first thing that's happened. There are going to be 10 candidates and only 10. And for the first time, you're going to see the top three candidates standing next to each other in the center stage. That's Joe Biden, who's been leading the polls, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And what most people are waiting to see is if there will be a Warren-Biden clash.

CHANG: OK. So of those three candidates you just named, Joe Biden remains still at the top of the Democratic field. But he hasn't had really great debate performances. So the one question I have is, how much do debates really matter to the campaign?

LIASSON: You know, you can make an argument that the debates really haven't mattered much because look at Joe Biden. He's still on top of the field even though he has not had a good performance in the debates. Elizabeth Warren has moved up steadily, but not because of anything she did in the debates. It's because she's had all these plans, and she's performed well on the campaign trail. But in one sense, the debates are having an impact, and it's a negative one because the overall image of the Democrats and their policy ideas has gotten more negative among the general electorate as this debate season has gone on.

CHANG: Interesting. The debates have not been great PR for the Democratic Party. Well, Elizabeth Warren has been gaining support the past few months. She's going to be facing Joe Biden onstage for the first time. What do you think her hardest challenges are going to be onstage?

LIASSON: Well, I can tell you one thing that I think you're going to hear her do tomorrow - is make her own electability argument. You know, this is Biden's rationale. He says, I can beat Donald Trump. And polls show that large numbers of Democrats think he is the best candidate to beat Trump so far, and electability is a top priority for Democrats this year.

So what you're going to hear Elizabeth Warren say, I think, is a version of what she's been saying on the stump, which is, we can't choose a candidate we don't believe in just because we're scared of losing to Donald Trump. So she's going to try to show that she's someone who can inspire, who can take on Trump, one-on-one. She's going to use her performance tomorrow night to let people imagine her standing next to Donald Trump.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: That's what she has to do. Now, she's got some problems because her favorable ratings with the general electorate are not great. In the NPR/PBS/Marist poll, she has a 41% favorable rating and a 42% unfavorable rating - not great.

CHANG: Do you think being a woman has anything to do with her likability rate?

LIASSON: It might be. You know, misogyny is always a factor. It's hard to tease it out from everything else, but it's something that's going to weigh on Democrats' minds because they are determined to pick a candidate that can beat Donald Trump.

CHANG: Sure. Well, I want to ask you - there was this new poll out this week from Politico and Morning Consult showing that a majority of voters say there are still too many candidates onstage. So what can this debate do to help winnow down the field?

LIASSON: As long as the Democratic National Committee sets the criteria for the debates, this debate maybe could help one of the lower-polling candidates break out - hasn't yet. But what voters are telling us in that new poll is that it's hard for them to make a decision when there's so many candidates onstage. They'd like a more manageable field - four, five candidates. And we might get there, but that is up to the Democratic National Committee, who's under tremendous pressure from the grassroots to let the people decide.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: You know, let a thousand flowers bloom. Let a thousand candidates on the stage. So and - because they control the process.

CHANG: That's NPR's Mara Liasson looking ahead to tomorrow night's Democratic debate.

Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. 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.