DETROIT — While the first night of the second round of Democratic debates showed off the party’s ideological diversity, the second night will look more like the Democratic base.
A random drawing led to an all-white debate stage on Tuesday, featuring the Democrats’ most ardent liberal voices, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and an assortment of moderates.
But half of Wednesday night’s lineup will be candidates of color, including the race’s two leading black candidates, Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and the entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
At the center of the stage will be the candidate who is currently drawing the support of the most black voters, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The setting could not be more apt. For Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, who have most clearly pinned their primary hopes on earning the support of black voters, Detroit is emblematic of the case they’ve made for beating President Trump in a general election. It relies on exciting the coalition that previously supported Barack Obama, mainly young people and voters who are racial minorities.
This differs slightly from the arguments of some other Democrats, who tend to focus on winning back white working class voters who backed Mr. Trump in 2016, particularly in states critical to the Electoral College like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
But before any of them can get to the general election, they have to stand out in the primary. Here’s what to watch for tonight.
Biden, Biden, Biden
This much is true: Mr. Biden remains the early front-runner in the Democratic primary, bolstered by overwhelming support from black voters. What’s unknown: If Mr. Biden has a repeat of his performance in the first debate, in which he was visibly put off by pointed attacks from Ms. Harris, can that support hold?
Like Ms. Harris did in the first debate, when she challenged Mr. Biden on his resistance to court-ordered busing to desegregate schools in the 70s, rivals will likely focus on the more controversial parts of Mr. Biden’s decades-long career in the United States Senate. Besides his opposition to busing, they include his championing of several bills in the 1980s and 1990s that imposed tough-on-crime measures that directly impacted black communities.
Two exhaustive investigations by The New York Times showed Mr. Biden has mis-characterized his record on both crime and busing while on the 2020 campaign trail.
At other points in the primary, Mr. Biden has faced sharp criticism from Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker for his willingness to speak positively about lawmakers with a history of being racist, including segregationists he worked with in the Senate.
Mr. Biden has, in response, touted his political origin story as a civil rights activist and highlighted his relationship with Mr. Obama, the country’s first black president.
In the lead-up to the debate, Mr. Biden has promised he will be on the attack. A spokeswoman released a scathing statement this week about Ms. Harris’s newly announced health care plan, which seeks to provide Medicare for all Americans while retaining a role for private insurers. Mr. Biden also skewered Mr. Booker over his criminal justice record as mayor of Newark.
Mr. Biden has been buoyed in particular by support among the older black voters that dominate the Southern primaries. Last week, at the annual conference of N.A.A.C.P. delegates, Mr. Biden received a warm ovation and vocal support from the audience. In interviews following his speech, voters consistently cited his tenure as Mr. Obama’s vice president as the source of the good will, and argued that he was best suited to defeat Mr. Trump in a general election.
The challengers: Harris and Booker
Mr. Biden will be sandwiched between Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker in the center of the stage.
Both have made repeated trips to South Carolina, the early primary state where black voters make up the overwhelming share of the Democratic primary electorate. Both have experienced their best moments of the campaign when hitting Mr. Biden’s record on race and racial equality. Both see themselves as well-positioned, should Mr. Biden fade, to pick up the black voters that currently support him.
In recent interviews, Mr. Booker has telegraphed his intention of going directly at Mr. Biden during the debate. The New Jersey senator has struggled to break into the top tier of candidates, but his advisers say they are confident that they can draw an effective contrast on criminal justice reform.
Mr. Booker, more than Mr. Biden or Ms. Harris, has also received plaudits from progressive economists for his baby bonds policy, which would take aim at the racial wealth gap by creating government-run savings accounts for every child born in the United States.
Ms. Harris has the fortunate problem of sky-high expectations going into the second debate, because — just as in the televised Judiciary Committee hearings that launched her into the national consciousness — she seemed at her prosecutorial best in the first one.
In its aftermath, her fund-raising picked up, and she has embraced speaking more about her biography. She has also now surpassed Mr. Biden in endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But Ms. Harris has yet to round out her policy platform, and in a recent interview with The Times, she said she wasn’t trying to “restructure society,” widening the distance between herself and the party’s left wing. A recent proposal about student loan forgiveness was met with derision online.
Where she succeeds, her campaign argues, is focusing on policies that will tangibly improve black voters’ lives. These include proposals to expand access to safe drinking water, grow minority businesses and decriminalize marijuana.
What about the rest?
This will not be a three-person debate, and other candidates will be confident that, despite so much focus on Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris, and Mr. Booker, they can also make an impression with black voters.
Two candidates to watch outside of the top three — Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Mr. Castro.
Mr. de Blasio, who can tout executive experience in America’s largest city, has been criticized by social justice activists for his handling of police abuse cases. But crime has continued to drop on his watch, and he has also invoked his interracial family to project himself as a candidate who understands black people’s concerns.
Mr. Castro and his focus on policies, conversely, have made him a stealth darling of progressive activists in recent months. He has repeatedly used major speeches to highlight causes that are particularly important to young black voters, and he was the first major candidate to put out a police reform platform. Onstage, he will stand next to Mr. Booker.