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Crowded Democratic Field Meets Again For Primary Debates


Democratic presidential primary voters face at least two big questions. One is who they think can win in 2020. Another is what each candidate would do if elected.


And tonight, the country sees a range of possible choices here. This debate, like the last one, features 20 candidates who will be divided across two nights. And by chance, the first night in Detroit features all white candidates, but there is some diversity of ideas. Two of the more progressive candidates are at center stage - Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Toward the edges are more moderate figures, like Colorado's John Hickenlooper.

INSKEEP: NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro will be in Detroit tonight. Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: How clear is it at this early stage what the party will stand for next fall?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, in this debate one, I mean, certainly, you have - when you look at that center stage, which is organized by polling and the people who are on top in the polls, you've got a socialist or a democratic socialist in Bernie Sanders and someone who wants to make pretty radical economic reforms in Elizabeth Warren. And the two of them have not shown that they really want to be going after each other very much.

And, you know, you noted the fact that this is going to be an all-white stage. And even though it's the most diverse in presidential history, all the candidates of color are on night two. And it's going be interesting to see how issues, for example, of race might come up.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and we're certainly going to have an opportunity to find that out. Let me ask about those two central candidates. They might be questioned from the edges. You might hear a question from the likes of Tim Ryan or John Hickenlooper, who have a very different approach or say they have a very different approach to the economy and other issues. But what's the difference, if any, between those top two in tonight's group - Sanders and Warren?

MONTANARO: Well - and these are two progressive heroes. I mean, you've seen Elizabeth Warren gain on Senator Sanders in the polls. But when I talked to the Sanders campaign and when our reporters have done so as well, you know, the Sanders camp is pretty clear that Sanders is not going to go after Warren. He sees her as an ally in implementing progressive change. But again, they are competing for the same job, and at some point, they might have to draw distinctions if it comes down to the two of them. Sanders points to his friendship with her and working together. There was a funny moment on CNN when Sanders was asked a week ago to say something nice about her. And here was his response.


BERNIE SANDERS: Senator Warren is a friend of mine, and I admire the fact that we have worked together over the years on a number of issues.

POPPY HARLOW: Anything specific?

SANDERS: Well, look; we have worked together on a number of issues...

HARLOW: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...And she is a very good senator.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: OK. Keeping it vague. But when you look at the things that they say that they would do if elected, are there some differences?

MONTANARO: There are. I mean, he's not someone who likes to concede any ground and would rather talk about big issues than about feelings. But when you do dig inside some of the issues on them and just how far they would want to go in reshaping the country, Warren wants big structural change but not socialism. She calls herself a capitalist. And on one area that hasn't been touched on much in this campaign - foreign policy - there are some big differences. Warren talks about how the defense industry, for example, should have a seat at the table but not own the table. Sanders, on the other hand, has longtime misgivings about American foreign policy, said that he would leverage aid, for example, recently, against Israel, calling it an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies.

INSKEEP: Let me ask one other thing. You mentioned race. You mentioned the lack of diversity by chance in tonight's group. But race is not just an issue for people of color. It's an issue for white people and especially at this moment. Can you see ways that it would come up?

MONTANARO: Well, it's certainly an opportunity for them to show unity against President Trump because that has been something that has come up with this president. And remember; Pete Buttigieg has had to answer for his record in South Bend as mayor in debate one. It could be interesting to see if a question of that comes back up tonight

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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