When 20 Democratic presidential candidates gather for the second round of debates Tuesday and Wednesday, about half of them will do so with the understanding that it will probably be their last time debating on the national stage this election cycle.

The two debates, which will air on CNN from 5 p.m. (PDT) until roughly 7:30 p.m. each day, are expected to be more contentious than the first set of debates in Miami last month, when Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro won plaudits and jumps in fundraising with effective attacks against onstage opponents.

Short of a breakout moment that turbocharges their grassroots fundraising and public polling, half the field is in danger of missing the Democratic National Committee’s qualifying threshold for the next round of debates, scheduled for September.

Officials involved in the campaigns and some of the candidates themselves have foreshadowed testier exchanges this week, as 10 candidates take the stage each night knowing they are fighting for their political lives.

And indeed the debate lineups, chosen during a game show-style live draw on CNN, will provide ample opportunity for rhetorical fireworks.

The Lineups

Tuesday’s debate will place the race’s two liberal front-runners, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, together at center stage.


Wednesday’s debate will feature former Vice President Joe Biden, under attack for his past positions on race-related issues, standing between the two leading black candidates: Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Biden has spent the past month clashing with both.

The Format

The debates will begin with 60-second opening statements, followed by 60-second responses to questions posed by CNN’s moderators: Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper.

CNN will not ask the candidates “show of hands” questions. And representatives from the network have told the campaigns they will penalize any candidate who “consistently interrupts” by reducing the amount of time that candidate has to speak.

The candidates will appear at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, a venue that hosted the infamous 2016 Republican presidential primary debate in which Donald Trump defended the size of his manhood after Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida attacked it.

The Dynamics

On the first night, CNN’s moderators will undoubtedly seek to draw distinctions between Sanders and Warren. Others onstage will also seek to contrast themselves with the race’s leading progressives. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has, in recent interviews, foreshadowed a resistance to the free college and “Medicare for All” proposals pushed by Sanders. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland oppose socialism and have attacked Sanders, a democratic socialist, without much success. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who did not qualify for the first debate in June, has said since then that he would not support extending federal health care benefits to immigrants in the country illegally, separating himself from most of the presidential field.

More prospective sources of tension might include a battle between Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas — a conflict O’Rourke’s allies have foreshadowed in recent days. Klobuchar, meanwhile, has barely hid her disdain for Buttigieg and O’Rourke, two men who are younger and less accomplished than her but have received far more attention in the race. And Marianne Williamson, a self-help author, remains a wild card.


While all 10 candidates debating Tuesday are white, Wednesday’s debate will feature five people of color, including Harris and Booker, who have each placed their bets on wresting the support of black voters away from Biden.

There’s little doubt Biden’s record on race will be a focus. Harris’ broadside during the first debate against Biden’s decades-old position on mandatory busing to integrate public schools energized her campaign, while Booker last week hit Biden for writing the 1994 crime bill, previewing a line of attack.

Biden’s advisers have said he will be more prepared to fight back Wednesday than he had been in Miami. His aides preemptively criticized Booker last week, highlighting his tenure as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

On the stage’s edge, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to stress his signature issue, climate change, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York may return to a vague attack she launched last week in Iowa, when she accused unnamed presidential rivals of not wanting to see women working “outside the home.”

The Stakes

For candidates like Inslee and Gillibrand, the stakes this week are enormous. Their fundraising pace is well behind what is necessary to reach 130,000 donors by September, which candidates must amass to qualify for the next round of debates.

Candidates must also receive at least 2% support in at least four qualifying polls to participate in the debates, scheduled for Sept. 12-13 in Houston. If 10 or fewer candidates qualify, the debate will take place on only one night.


Seven candidates have already locked down their spots: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke and, as of Monday, Booker.

Castro and Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, have enough donors to qualify but need one more qualifying poll each. Klobuchar has crossed the polling threshold and is on pace to reach the donor threshold, according to her campaign, which said Monday that she had nearly 120,000 donors and was averaging 1,000 new donors a day.

But no other candidate has met either benchmark for the September debate, and none of them appear particularly close. Short of a breakout moment that translates into a surge of support over the next month, this week will be the last time they appear in a nationally televised debate for this race.