The last two major U.S. Democratic presidential candidates – former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – are debating Sunday night in a world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, seated in a Washington television studio without any people attending it.
The two long-time politicians will be trading their thoughts – and likely more than a few barbs at each other – over two hours.
Both of them are hoping to win the Democratic presidential nomination to face Republican President Donald Trump in November’s national election, when he is seeking a second four-year term in the White House.
But Biden holds a clear edge at the moment in the race for the party’s presidential nomination ahead of what could be the last debate before the Democratic nominating convention in July.
The debate was at first scheduled for in front of an audience, as has been the case in previous encounters, but was moved to a CNN television studio to minimize the possibility of contact with anyone who has contracted the deadly coronavirus.
After a stumbling start in the first three presidential nominating contests in February, Biden has won 16 of the last 21 state elections and is heavily favored in the next four on Tuesday, scattered across the U.S., in Florida in the South, Ohio and Illinois in the country’s heartland and Arizona in the West.
Biden needs a majority of at least 1,991 delegates at the convention and at the moment leads Sanders, 809-666. Projections at the fivethirtyeight.com political forecasting site say Biden is likely to add another 200 delegates to that margin in Tuesday’s voting.
The earlier debates have had at least six candidates on stage, often leading to a verbal free-for-all with candidates talking over each other and leaving television viewers at a loss to understand any one individual. That could be diminished with only two candidates vying for attention and plenty of air time to talk.
All of the other Democratic candidates who have dropped out of the presidential race have endorsed Biden as they exited, with the exception of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has yet to endorse either Biden or Sanders.
But with Biden now projected to win the party nomination in his third run for the presidency over three decades, Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, will have to make the case that he is best suited to take on Trump, who at 73 is younger than either Biden, 77, or Sanders, 78.
Sanders, with decidedly more progressive political views than the more moderate Biden, will need to show that he could attract enough votes to defeat Trump, that his views calling for a national government takeover of the U.S. health care system and other government intervention on a range of issues, are not too far to the left to keep him from winning.
Biden, meanwhile, in part needs to get through the debate without more troubling verbal gaffes, such as recent campaign appearance glitches when he mixed up what day the last primary elections were occurring and also was unable to recall key words from the country’s Declaration of Independence that many school-age children could recite.
In recent campaign appearances, the normally verbose Biden has read his speeches off a teleprompter and the addresses have been noticeably shorter to minimize the chance for more verbal missteps. That, of course, won’t be possible with Sunday night’s give-and-take with Sanders across a table.
Sanders in the past has attacked Biden for his vote favoring the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 on grounds that dictator Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction that were never found. Sanders voted against the U.S. intervention and Biden now says his vote was a mistake.
On U.S. health care, while Sanders is calling for a government takeover that would end the current use of private health insurers to help pay their medical bills, Biden favors improvements in the current system that was adopted during the time he was former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president, but not a government takeover.
Sanders acknowledged last week that voters in recent Democratic primaries think Biden has a better chance to defeat Trump than he does. But Sanders said he plans to also press Biden on other issues where they favor different shades of change, such as on cancellation of student loan debt, climate change and paid sick leave for American workers.
Biden, sensing after last week’s primary election victories that he is pulling away from Sanders, offered his challenger an olive branch.
“We share a common goal,” Biden said. “And together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together. We’ll bring this nation together.”