With the help of friends in four states — California, Iowa, New York and Massachusetts — I've been conducting a highly unscientific coffee shop poll of Democratic voters during the presidential campaign. Here's what I've heard lately: very little.
Despite a crush of news that would seem to affect the race, the candidates appear to be running in place. The buzz is fading. Yes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren inched up in the polls, and a few marginal candidates have dropped out, but for the most part, little has changed since Iowa farmers planted their corn last spring.
Three Democratic debates have not changed the big picture, but with actual primary voting beginning just 111 days after the next debate, and with many new topics to discuss, things could play differently on Tuesday on CNN.
Hard as it is to believe, the word "impeachment" was never spoken in the Democratic debate on Sept. 12. This time, it's likely to be the first topic brought up.
Of course, all the Democrats who will be on stage in Westerville, Ohio, now support the impeachment effort — with former Vice President Joe Biden adding his voice last week. “To preserve our Constitution, our democracy and our basic integrity,” Biden said, Trump “should be impeached.” He added that the president has basically “indicted himself.”
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But it won’t do any good to hear everyone echo Biden’s words and pledge support for the House’s impeachment investigation, nor will it help voters to hear each candidate blast the bad behavior of President Donald Trump and his henchmen. It would, however, be meaningful to find out which candidates favor prosecuting Trump after he leaves office, and who among them believes guidelines that prohibit indicting a sitting president should be changed. It might be worthwhile to ask candidates whether they fear that a party-line impeachment vote will energize Republicans in the 2020 campaign.
Biden and his son
The impeachment issue will open the door to questions about Biden’s son Hunter and the large sums he earned serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. To be clear, no matter how many ugly tweets Trump sends out, there is no proof whatsoever that Joe Biden or his son broke any laws. Yet, the cosmetics of Hunter Biden’s business dealings are unattractive. Will anyone on the debate stage go after the former vice president’s son? In previous debates, some have attacked Biden’s record concerning civil rights. Will Hunter’s situation be off limits? How will moderators from CNN and The New York Times handle this highly delicate matter?
Bernie Sanders' health
Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, will take his place on the debate stage, presumably looking no worse for the wear after suffering a heart attack Oct. 1. The other candidates and moderators will immediately face a predicament similar to that involving Joe Biden’s son: Is Sanders’ health and age fair game?
In fact, Sanders will undoubtedly address his health whether asked about it or not. In a seven-minute video statement last Thursday, Sanders wisely sought to turn the negative of his heart condition into a positive regarding the importance, as he sees it, of "Medicare for All." He said that lying in a Las Vegas hospital “made me feel even more strongly the need for us to continue our efforts to end this dysfunctional and cruel health care system.”
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Medical care and insurance aside, Sanders’ health emergency has reopened discussion about his fitness to serve as president well into his 80s, as well as the broader question of age for all the septuagenarian candidates — Warren (70), Trump (73), Biden (76), and Sanders (78). Fact is, it was a legitimate issue even before Sanders was stricken. Voters and commentators tend to dwell on how vigorous and fit a candidate seems rather than focusing on the odds of medical complications and diminished faculties that are simply a part of aging. Will moderators challenge the older candidates on the age issue? And will any of the younger candidates dare to make age part of the debate?
Elizabeth Warren's Rise
Since the last debate, Warren has improved her position in most national polls and now finds herself neck and neck with Biden. To date, the top three Democrats — Warren, Biden and Sanders — have been gentle with each other on the debate stage. Is Biden’s slump in both polling and fundraising enough to make him more aggressive this time? And will other candidates now go after Warren as she nears front-runner status?
The president's collapse
Although Trump's base — energized by prime-time hosts on Fox News — won’t concede it, his presidency is unraveling. Whether that results in impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate, it is damaging Trump’s reelection prospects. At what point does that necessitate a shift by Democratic candidates? The more Trump does to defeat himself, the less Democrats need to flog an anti-Trump theme and the more they will need to find the best candidate to bring the nation together.
The early months of the campaign were focused on finding a fighter — someone who could go toe-to-toe with Trump. The greater need now might be to elect a healer — a new president who can somehow repair the political and social disagreements that are ripping the nation apart. Will that Democrat emerge on the stage in Ohio? My fear is no, but my hope is yes.
Peter Funt is a writer and host of "Candid Camera."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Age, health and impeachment: What to watch for in Democratic debate