The Note: Democrats joust with shadows at awkwardly timed debate

ABC News 2 weeks ago

What if a debate happens where the candidates would rather be debating someone else?

After an early-primary season where drama surrounded getting down to one night and one stage, the fifth Democratic debate takes place Wednesday night with no way to confine the relevant action to a single screen.

PHOTO: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg are introduced before the Democratic Presidential Debate, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg are introduced before the Democratic Presidential Debate, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

While the stage will still be about as crowded as usual -- 10 candidates earned podiums in Atlanta -- that doesn't reflect the latest campaign realities. The most recent entrant, former Gov. Deval Patrick, won't be there, and neither will former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who now appears to be waiting until at least Thursday to announce.

The main event, arguably, is playing out further north, in public impeachment hearings that continue for at least two more days and threaten to consume far more campaign time. For as contentious as impeachment is, the case against President Donald Trump isn't necessarily salient for the Democratic primary, where voters are already convinced they want him gone.

The rise of Mayor Pete Buttigieg is one new storyline. What those toward the wings do to stay relevant is an old one that remains.

But candidates looking for a game-charger have to grapple with the fact that the previous debates haven't really changed games.

"The same five candidates have been at the top of the polls before and after each debate," FiveThirtyEight's Geoffrey Skelley notes.

Voting begins in a little more than two months. But the Democrats running for president have to accept a brutal reality: There's no guarantee of seizing voters' attention for the foreseeable future.

Congressional investigators in their impeachment inquiry hearings are moving through witnesses to get closer to the president.

Tuesday, the committee and the country heard from witnesses who work at the White House, prepare materials for the president and heard the president, first-hand, during his summer call with the Ukrainian leader.

PHOTO: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives at the Capitol for his deposition as part of the Houses impeachment inquiry, Oct. 17, 2019.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives at the Capitol for his deposition as part of the House's impeachment inquiry, Oct. 17, 2019.

The first witness on Wednesday though will be an ambassador who was frequently in direct contact with Trump and a former mega-donor to his campaign.

Expect Gordon Sondland to get grilled by lawmakers on both sides. After all, the ambassador to the European Union already went back to investigators to amend his original testimony, admitting in his revision that he tried himself to get the Ukrainians to engage in, what some will surely call, a quid pro quo. Specifically, in his updated testimony Sondland said that when he was working as a government official, he told Ukrainian leaders that they would need to make public statements about the investigations the president wanted in order to get the U.S. aid that was slated for them.

Former senior director in the National Security Council, Tim Morrison, who was called by Republicans as one of their witnesses, said Tuesday that he was concerned when Sondland told him about the pressure he was putting on Ukraine. Last week, another witness brought up the possibility of a phone call where the president asked Sondland directly for an update about it all.

Big picture: the questions are beginning to zero in on what the president knew and what did he ask for?

As the primary heats up in early voting states and policy divides among candidates become more stark, voters are prioritizing electability as a tactic to win back the White House in 2020. A new poll from Gallup shows that half of Democrats, including 33% who identify as liberals, would like to nominate a moderate candidate to oust Trump.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall event at the Walpole Middle School, Nov. 10, 2019, in Walpole, N.H.
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall event at the Walpole Middle School, Nov. 10, 2019, in Walpole, N.H.

The increasing popularity of candidates with more moderate plans, such as Buttigieg, show that some Americans are looking for less extreme politics from the presidency in 2020.

In the early battleground states, voters agree. In Michigan, where Trump edged out a win by less than half a percent in 2016, polling from mid-October shows that 62% of voters there would be more likely to support a Democrat who is more moderate than others, opposed to the 30% who would like a nominee who is more liberal.

Sixty percent of voters said they would rather nominate someone with the highest chances of beating Trump, as opposed to the 36% who said they'd like to nominate someone who aligns with their views. It's one of the clearest signs this cycle that Democrats are prioritizing electability over agreement on policy issues, which could put more progressive candidates at risk with the centrist voting bloc as primary season nears.

ONE MORE THING

If there's one witness in the House impeachment inquiry who could speak to exactly what President Donald Trump wanted in Ukraine, it would be Gordon Sondland. The U.S. ambassador to the European Union is testifying in public for the first time on Wednesday morning. In the afternoon, Laura Cooper, a senior Defense Department official, and David Hale, a top State Department official will appear before the House Intelligence Committee. Check here for live updates throughout the day.

THE PLAYLIST

ABC News' "Start Here" Podcast. Wednesday morning's episode features ABC News Senior National Correspondent Terry Moran with the key moments from Tuesday's hearings and a preview of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland's testimony Wednesday. Then, ABC News' Aaron Katersky reports on the two prison guards who were on duty the night Jeffrey Epstein killed himself and who now face federal charges. http://apple.co/2HPocUL

ABC News' "Powerhouse Politics" Podcast. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joins ABC News Political Director Rick Klein on the podcast ahead of the Democratic debate in Atlanta. Patrick announced he was running last week and that afternoon filed paperwork to appear on the primary ballot in New Hampshire, one day before the filing deadline. The next day, he told ABC News' Whit Johnson, "I wouldn't be in it if I didn't think I could win it." https://apple.co/2Zfz5nD

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY

  • President Donald Trump travels to Austin, Texas, to tour the Apple manufacturing plant in the afternoon.
  • Vice President Mike Pence tours the USS Cooperstown and delivers remarks beginning at 11:30 a.m. in Marinette, Wisconsin. He then speaks at the Strada Education Network's National Symposium welcome reception at 6:30 p.m. in Indianapolis.
  • U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale testify before House Intelligence Committee beginning at 9 a.m. in Washington.
  • Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez kicks off the Civic Engagement and Voter Protection Summit at 9:30 a.m. in Atlanta.
  • Marianne Williamson participates in a regenerative farming tour at 12:30 p.m. (CST) in Fairfield, Iowa. She then delivers remarks at Dodici's Coffee Shop at 2:30 p.m. in Washington, Iowa. Later, she leads a "Conversations with Marianne" at 7 p.m. in Fairfield, Iowa.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., delivers remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations at 6:30 p.m. in Washington.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Andrew Yang participate in the Democratic debate at 9 p.m. in Atlanta.
  • Montana Gov. Steve Bullock travels to New York for meetings, fundraising events and national press.
  • Former Vice President Al Gore travels to Vanderbilt University for a "global conversation on the climate crisis" at 6 p.m. in Nashville, Tennessee.

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