Ten Democratic presidential candidates will take the debate stage in Atlanta on Wednesday night, but the spotlight is likely to follow two contenders who have risen to the top of polls over the last several months: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Here is what to watch for as the candidates debate:
How will Warren handle jabs from her rivals?
Last month in Ohio, Ms. Warren took incoming fire from four different rivals. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mr. Buttigieg led the attack against her health care proposals, Senator Kamala Harris of California made a disjointed plea for Ms. Warren to sign onto her call for Twitter to ban President Trump and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii demanded to know how Ms. Warren was qualified to serve as commander-in-chief.
Since then, Ms. Warren has seen her polling position diminish as she has sought to explain how she would finance “Medicare for all” beyond the “I’m with Bernie” line that she offered earlier in the campaign. But the attacks against her haven’t stopped. She remains a useful foil for Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg — along with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — as they jostle to be the standard-bearer for the party’s moderate wing.
Ms. Warren has shown no indication she’s willing to give ground. During a speech to Iowa Democrats this month she used the word “fight” 21 times in 12 minutes. Her argument that the party will lose to Mr. Trump if it nominates a candidate who fears her bold proposals has become central to her campaign stump speech.
Expect both dynamics to be on full display in Atlanta, though this time Ms. Warren will be prepared to defend Medicare for all in a more detailed fashion than she has demonstrated to date.
At the same time, the volume of opposition research being pitched by rival campaigns about Mr. Buttigieg has increased, focusing on 9-year-old friendly remarks about the Tea Party and his stewardship of the municipal government in South Bend.
In previous debates, Mr. Buttigieg has easily parried attacks from his rivals — that task will become tougher as scrutiny on him increases.
Will Bernie Sanders finally pressure Warren?
“I will engage that struggle on day one of my administration,” Mr. Sanders said Friday in California. “Not put it off for several years.”
Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, long ideological partners, have mostly avoided direct conflict on the campaign trail. But the Medicare for all issue affords each of them an opportunity to create political distance. Mr. Sanders can once again brand himself as the purest advocate for his political revolution. Ms. Warren, meanwhile, will have to navigate between appealing to the party’s most progressive voters and not frightening away moderate Democrats by tying herself too closely to Mr. Sanders.
Medicare for all who want to debate about it
The Democratic differences on how to fix America’s health care system have consumed much of the airtime in debate after debate, and the coming clash in Atlanta is expected to be more of the same.
In the last debate, Ms. Warren was hammered for lacking her own Medicare for all plan. She has since rolled out a comprehensive package that more moderate Democrats, like Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, have said is unrealistic and unworkable. Mr. Biden has used health care to raise other questions about Ms. Warren, calling her an elitist with a “my way or the highway” approach to governance.
Mr. Buttigieg has been advertising in Iowa to promote his “Medicare for all who want it” approach, which Ms. Warren has said will not fundamentally fix the system. The recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll showed how divided the party is on the topic, with 36 percent favoring a Medicare for all plan that eliminates private insurance, 34 percent wanting a “public option” and 20 percent saying they preferred restoring provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
A split-screen on impeachment
Midway through the second week of impeachment gobbling the entire Washington news cycle, the presidential candidates would still rather talk about almost anything else.
Yet it seems implausible — if not impossible — for Wednesday night’s debate moderators to avoid asking the White House hopefuls about the House inquiry unfolding daily on live television.
But what can the candidates say at this point? They’re all for impeaching Mr. Trump. But while they know that wanting the president removed from office is the cost of entry for the Democratic primary, voters would much rather see a discussion about the sort of issues that are central to their daily lives: health care, climate change and the economy.
Even Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who spent years on a campaign calling for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, is talking about other issues on the trail.
So expect to see the moderators quiz the candidates about the latest developments from Washington, as they then pivot to something else.
Can Kamala Harris recover?
Things are not going well for the California senator. Since the last debate, she has shuttered her New Hampshire offices. She has laid off staff and shifted resources from her Baltimore headquarters to Iowa. And she has continued a slide in the polls, which now show her closer to the bottom tier than to the top.
The challenge is that Ms. Harris has already delivered one of the most memorable debate moments of the primary — her takedown of Mr. Biden on busing — but the bump she received quickly faded.
She has since turned her focus on Mr. Trump in one debate, and challenged Ms. Warren to call for kicking the president off Twitter in another. She does not have a signature policy focus — she has called to cut middle-class taxes as a top priority — that seems ripe to pop. It is not clear what tack she will take on Wednesday evening (she could be among the many ready to pile onto Mr. Buttigieg), but the pressure to perform is strong.