The best presidential primary debates have conflict and clash. The candidates participating in the ninth Democratic debate, happening Wednesday night in Las Vegas, look ready to level attacks on each other's policies and past positions. Good.
On issues ranging from health care to immigration, a vigorous debate would help Nevada Democrats determine whose plans can withstand scrutiny and whose will crumble under questioning. While some underdogs have become strong nomination contenders, others have faced harsh scrutiny -- and still others are largely a mystery to debate-watchers. How each debater performs Wednesday night could have a large impact on their campaign's trajectory.
For starters, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his signature Medicare for All proposal, have a sizable and loyal following. But what happened in Nevada recently is a reminder that many Democrats oppose making private health insurance illegal.
The Culinary Union Local 226 represents 60,000 workers and is the most powerful union in Nevada. It also runs the Culinary Health Fund, which provides health benefits for members and their families. The union is strongly opposed to Medicare for All. It distributed a flyer recently stating that Sanders would "end Culinary healthcare."
An endorsement from Culinary 226 could have pushed a non-Bernie alternative to victory in Nevada. It declined to endorse anyone, however. Expect several candidates to tout their desire to defend union health care in an effort to appeal to undecided union members.
There's another wrinkle here, too: After Culinary 226 put out its fact sheet, Sanders supporters sent a barrage of vulgar insults to two of the union's top female leaders. Sanders denounced those attacks in a later interview on PBS, but former Vice President Joe Biden suggested Sanders bears "some accountability." Biden said that if his supporters had done that, he would "flat disown them." This could be a fruitful line of attack for Biden or another candidate to pursue during the debate.
For the Nevada debate, the Democratic National Committee scrapped the requirement to have a certain number of donors. That means the self-funded former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg is qualified to take the stage.
It will be worth watching how candidates engage with the billionaire's presidential bid. He isn't on the ballot in Nevada, but the other candidates have reason to go after him. The hundreds of millions of dollars he's poured into ads boosted him to third place in last week's Quinnipiac poll.
Bloomberg will be the perfect foil for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She's frequently attacked banking institutions and has proposed a wealth tax. Expect her to ratchet up her attacks on Bloomberg for previously linking the 2008 financial crisis, in part, to a decline in "redlining," a practice in which banks didn't make loans in certain areas. Often those areas had a high minority population. Warren is currently fourth in the Quinnipiac poll so she has nothing to lose by using class warfare and issues of race to energize potential supporters.
Nevada, which holds its Democratic caucus February 22, is the first voting state with a sizable minority population. That gives candidates another line of attack on Bloomberg. He previously defended the use of "stop and frisk" as a crime-fighting tactic. In 2016, he said that "male, minorities, 16 to 25" made up the majority of violent criminals.
Comments like these give a candidate such as Pete Buttigieg an easy opening to try to ingratiate himself with minority voters. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has struggled to earn support from minority communities, which may have contributed to him polling poorly in Nevada.
Nevada has a large Hispanic population, so expect caucusgoers to key in on candidates' answers about immigration. With her surprising third-place finish in New Hampshire, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota touts herself as a moderate alternative to President Donald Trump. Being a moderate means she's held positions that don't always play well during a Democratic primary (for example, she once voted for building 370 miles of border fencing and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents). If other candidates think she has momentum, expect them to use that against her.
The last thing to note is that Nevada Democrats offer early caucus voting through Tuesday. Yes, that's as odd as it sounds. As of Monday morning, the Nevada State Democratic Party reported that more than 26,000 Democrats had voted early. In 2016, around 84,000 Democrats voted in the Nevada caucus, so a sizable number of voters will have voted before Wednesday's debate. Even if a candidate has a breakout performance Wednesday night, early voting will limit their surge, because there will be fewer caucusgoers left.
Almost every candidate coming to Nevada has a reason to be aggressive, which should make for one of the most informative and interesting debates yet.