How the Next Democratic Debate Offers a New Start for Second-Tier Candidates

WASHINGTON — Senator Amy Klobuchar is going to spend nearly all her time and money on Iowa, visiting each of the state’s 99 counties with hopes that old-fashioned retail politics can inject new life into her campaign there.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has not matched his prolific fund-raising with significant growth in the polls, is using his money on a massive Iowa ad campaign vowing “real solutions not more polarization” — contrasting himself with his more liberal rivals. And Senator Kamala Harris is planning on using this week’s debate to portray herself as the unifying alternative to the moderate front-runner, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the two leading progressives in the field, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

A new, more urgent hour has arrived for the Democratic White House hopefuls beyond the big three — Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden.

As they prepare for Thursday’s debate in Houston, many of the second-tier candidates are pursuing a one-two punch strategy: planning and practicing what they hope are breakout moments, while deepening their on-the-ground and advertising campaigns to take advantage of a strong debate performance.

Faced with an ever-shrinking calendar before February’s Iowa caucuses and voters who are eager to narrow the choices, the 17 candidates lagging the front-runners are grasping for fresh ways to distinguish themselves and jolt a race that appeared to settle into two distinct divisions this summer.

“The clock is running and your opportunity to shake this thing up will only get harder and harder because there are fewer days to do it,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and veteran of past presidential campaigns.

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There’s no easier way to upend the race than by creating a viral debate moment. But in an effort to score something more than a mere sugar high that dissipates after a news cycle, the trailing candidates are pairing their debate preparations with other moves to try to alter the trajectory of the primary. They are hoping to avoid the fate of Julián Castro, who had a strong debate performance in June but was not prepared to capitalize on it, and Ms. Harris, who also had a big night but did little to sustain her sudden bump in the polls.

Not all second-tier candidates are created equal, of course. But each of them is under pressure to lift their campaigns now because of the sprawling nature of the field, the money they need to finance their organizations and the Democratic National Committee’s increasingly stringent rules governing debate access.

So whether it’s with expensive advertising, sharpened attacks on the leading candidates or retrenching to make their stand in a single state, the longshots are taking their shots.

“The assessment for a number of candidates on the brink of the top tier is that one of them is bound to break into the top tier, so why can’t it be them?” said Jennifer R. Psaki, who worked as a campaign and White House aide to former President Barack Obama.

That so many are even trying reflects the unpredictable nature of this primary.

While a handful of candidates have already quit, unwilling to suffer the indignity of trudging on without making the debates, Mr. Biden’s penchant for self-inflicted errors has prompted most of those polling in single digits to believe his hold on the lead is tenuous and that they should stay in the race. And for the more centrist candidates, their calculation is that the half of the primary electorate that calls itself moderate or conservative will not turn to Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren if and when Mr. Biden fades.

These twin wagers have meant an unusually large number of underdogs are forging ahead against the odds, ensuring that the historically large Democratic field remains unwieldy and that the lagging candidates must go to new lengths to get attention.

Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, for example, both failed to meet the threshold for this week’s debate. But these two western moderates believe Mr. Biden will falter by Iowa — Mr. Bennet called him a “soft’’ front-runner last weekend — and that the establishment wing of the party will be scrambling for an alternative.

So they’re sticking around in expectation of that moment: Mr. Bullock is planning on a modified version of Ms. Klobuchar’s strategy, spending the bulk of his time in Iowa, and has begun spicing up his language with expletives. And Mr. Bennet turned to another time-honored publicity grab on Saturday, the big-name endorsement, when he rolled out former Senator Gary Hart at the New Hampshire Democratic convention.

Mr. Bennet and Mr. Buttigieg also each used Saturday’s gathering to take on Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, though not by name, over their proposals to create a single-payer system that eliminates private health care.

“Rather than spending the next 10 years fighting a losing battle to ban private insurance, we can win on a forward-looking Democratic agenda,” said Mr. Bennet.

In a sign of how much of a threat Ms. Warren has become in the race, Mr. Buttigieg offered a barely-veiled critique of her voluminous policy proposals as he argued that nobody should be made to give up their private health care.

“We need ideas big enough to meet this moment, but it’s not enough to think up good policy,” he said. “We’ve got to unify Americans around these solutions, or nothing will actually get done.”

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Beto O’Rourke was also at the New Hampshire conclave, but he is hoping to catch fire in the same way his near miss 2018 Senate race took off: by going places where candidates rarely trek and hoping his blunt, and at times salty, speaking style draws attention on social media.

Mr. O’Rourke was planning to spend Sunday with some fishermen on their boat off the New Hampshire seacoast. Later this month, he is going to visit a Native American reservation and make stops at California’s San Quentin prison and at a skid row area in the state.

Mr. Castro, who won attention for tearing into Mr. O’Rourke at the first debate, was planning to go on the offensive against one of his rivals in Houston this week but an adviser to his campaign would not say which one.

Yet even as they consider creative ways to change the trajectory of the race, the second-tier candidates are wary of trying to replicate the Hail Mary pass Ms. Harris heaved at the first debate in June. Her highly personal attack on Mr. Biden over busing won her a much-needed spike in donations and a lift in the polls, but her gains turned out to be fleeting and her broadside angered some voters uneasy with intraparty conflict.

Ms. Harris’s advisers recognize that she needs to be seen as more of a happy warrior or, in her case, happy prosecutor, and are hopeful she’ll stress notes of commonality at the debate in the way she did over the weekend in New Hampshire. “The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” she said.

Senator Cory Booker also tangled with Mr. Biden in the second debate, but he has appeared to gain little from the encounter. Yet even as he continued to target the former vice president in New Hampshire — “We can’t make the mistake that says, ‘Oh, we got to play it safe,’” he warned Democrats — Mr. Booker also turned his attention to Ms. Warren.

“This election is not just about our plans, it’s about our heart and gut,” he said.

As for Ms. Klobuchar, she has already visited 47 of Iowa’s counties. And next week, she’ll make it official: She plans to announce that she’ll touch down in all 99 of them to try to break through in the state that is still providing hope to so many candidates who were once counted out or scarcely taken seriously at all.