Crews continue to work Tuesday on the final touches of the stage a day before the Democratic presidential debate inside the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. MSNBC and The Washington Post are sponsors of the debate. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

What to watch in Atlanta’s Democratic debate

The Democratic showdown arrives in Atlanta on Wednesday with the race for president as fluid as ever.

Impeachment proceedings have distracted attention from the contest, even as two new candidates have either launched a campaign or threatened a run. Moderate contenders are enjoying rising poll numbers after months of focus on the party’s more liberal wing.

And Georgia Democrats, long hungry for a chance to showcase the state before a national audience, are eager for their moment in the sun.

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Into this mix enters 10 top candidates, who will have a bit more room on the stage at Tyler Perry Studios but less time to make their point. The debate features two fewer contenders than last month’s meetup in Ohio — and will stretch two hours instead of three.

Here are a few key things to watch about Wednesday’s debate:

How will Georgia make its presence known? 

White House hopefuls have hardly talked about voting rights during their first four Democratic debates, but that could change as the event lands in the heart of the political battle over ballot access.

“It must be asked,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “They need to hear what’s happening around the country, when you’ve got people waiting for hours and hours at polling places, when you have laws being passed that are not meant to make it easier to vote but make it harder to vote.”

The same could be said about a string of other Georgia-centric issues, such as the battle this year over the state’s new abortion restrictions and an ongoing fight at the statehouse over Medicaid expansion.

“We just passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, and Georgia is like the New Hollywood of the South,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “I hope that that is elevated because it has not gotten enough attention in the first four presidential debates.”

Throughout the week, the candidates have tried to appeal to African American voters by rolling out platforms on ballot access and college affordability, and staging events at historically black colleges. A debate on Tyler Perry’s turf seems a good opportunity to sharpen their approaches.

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“Most of the candidates are courting the black vote with events before and after the debate,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The question is, how will they court the black vote during the debate?”

Will the debate continue a moderate moment? 

The forces of moderation have claimed a string of victories in the runup to the debate.

Centrist Democrats picked up major victories in off-year elections this month in Kentucky and Louisiana, despite President Donald Trump’s best efforts to defeat them.

Recent polls show more mainstream candidates, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Joe Biden, gaining ground at the expense of their more liberal rivals.

Another moderate, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, just joined the race, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is poised to run as a centrist. And recent polls in Georgia and other battleground states suggest most voters prefer a health care option that isn’t Medicare for All.

But the challenge for the moderate candidates on Wednesday’s stage is to make sure the moment isn’t fleeting.

Staked to a clear lead in The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll, Buttigieg is likely to come under fresh attacks from rivals who question his political experience or magnify his struggles with African American voters.

Biden, too, faces a decision about whether to sharpen his attacks against Buttigieg, who threatens to slice off some of his support, or keep his focus on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is trailing close behind him in some recent national surveys.

Is this a “last stand” for some struggling candidates? 

The same question has been asked about every debate, but pressure is mounting as the first round of 2020 votes approaches and standards for qualifying for debates tighten up.

Klobuchar and two other U.S. Senate colleagues — Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — are locked in the single digits in most polls and face a challenge to transcend viral moments and do something more significant that fundamentally boosts their chances.

A half-dozen other candidates are below them in surveys, struggling to gain any sort of traction. Some Democrats have seen enough.

“I sure hope the field is whittled down,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Biden supporter. “It’s an embarrassment of riches. We have so many talented people who are willing to serve. But as we get into caucus and primary season, hopefully your numbers will begin to go down.”

Hicks, the strategist, put a finer point on it: “If they cannot make a move in this debate, there’s no reason to stay in the race.”

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Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.

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