Each of the five leading 2020 Democratic candidates can beat the president in a general election, according to the latest national match-up polls. But first, they will need to secure the party’s nomination in a hotly contested primary season that started with more than two dozen hopefuls. They're each using very different tactics to do so.
Those five candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — joined each other on Thursday night for the third Democratic debates, along with five additional candidates currently polling beneath them: Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro.
The debate marked the first time Americans saw all of the top Democrats on stage at once, discussing everything from climate change to gun control policy in a three-hour display credited with tackling a range of issues. For the most part the candidates were virtually in agreement with their visions for the future of the country, albeit with different plans and initiatives to effect change.
Each candidate said they wanted to expand health insurance to the vast majority of Americans, for example, but Mr Biden and Ms Harris expressed support for a public option while Mr Sanders and Ms Warren took on a Medicare-for-All stance (Mr Buttigieg falls somewhere in between with a “Medicare-for-All who want it” plan, as he described it). Reducing carbon emissions, lowering prescription drug prices, achieving universal access to a quality education, ending the president’s trade wars: these are all staples of every Democratic presidential platform.
What separates the men and women vying for a shot at unseating Mr Trump in the Oval Office are not their policy proposals so much as their campaigning strategies, a fact that became increasingly clear during Thursday night’s debate.
Mr Biden, a centrist statesman who stood centre-stage in between his two most progressive opponents, delivered sharp responses to their liberal policy ideas and reminded voters of his work under former President Barack Obama.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” he said.
Meanwhile Mr Sanders, the Vermont senator who came somewhat close to beating out Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination, slammed the former vice president on several occasions, saying he was responsible for millions of Americans who went bankrupt due to medical bills under the Obama administration.
He was given a helping hand from Mr Castro, a Texas Democrat who previously served in Mr Obama’s administration as well, who attacked Mr Biden and insinuated at one point the 76-year-old was forgetting key parts of his health care policy.
Instead of attacking her fellow Democrats or shooting down centrist opinions, Ms Warren shared her personal story with voters and made the case for robust liberal reforms in order to rebuild America’s middle class.
She described raising a family after becoming a teacher and then going on to study law as she explained the need to significantly reduce student loan debt nationwide.
“I think I'm the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher," she said.
Mr Biden at one point attempted to showcase the difference between himself and Ms Warren when he said: “The senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack.” Ms Warren later credited the former president, saying: “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America.”
Mr Buttigieg delivered a personal touch, recalling his military experience when discussing the need to end “forever wars” in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The openly-gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana discussed his coming out story on the debate stage — a move that would have been considered unthinkable just a few years ago — and how his sexuality factored into his political life.
"You know, as a military officer serving under Don't Ask Don't Tell and as an elected official in the state of Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, at a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to acknowledge whether just being who I was, was going to be the ultimate career ending professional setback," He said. “I came back from the deployment and realised that you only get to live one life and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer.”
Kamala Harris meanwhile has focused almost all of her energy on Donald Trump after having previously sky-rocketed in the polls when she attacked Mr Biden at the first debates over his record on school segregation. She came with a prepared set of fiery one-liners, including when she said Mr Trump was tweeting “the ammunition” for violent white supremacists behind a number of recent mass shootings across the country.
“President Trump, you have spent the last two-and-a-half years full time trying to sow hate and division among us, and that’s why we’ve gotten nothing done,” she said.
It remains unclear what approach the majority of Democratic voters may be more inclined to support in order to defeat Mr Trump — an attack-dog style candidate who isn’t afraid to take the gloves off, or one with a uniting spirit attempting to restore civility in the national political conversation.
With the bulk of their policy initiatives having already been unveiled, the latest debate was a chance for each candidate to share their winning strategies with the American public. While polls are likely to rise and fall for all ten candidates who took the stage on Thursday night, the true test for their newly-formed strategies will arrive when the first primary voters begin casting their ballots in February.