Buttigieg in Rivals’ Sights at Tonight’s Debate in Atlanta

Tyler Pager

(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic presidential race’s new pecking order will be on full display Wednesday night, with Pete Buttigieg taking the debate stage as the emerging front-runner in Iowa and top 2020 rivals Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren trying to knock him off that perch.

Buttigieg’s 9 percentage-point lead over the pack in Iowa is a sign of strength for the party’s moderates as they try to convince voters that progressives such as Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders are too far left to be viable opponents to President Donald Trump in 2020, particularly among swing voters who will play a crucial role in the general election.

The fifth Democratic debate will be held in Atlanta at 9 p.m. Eastern time and will be hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post. The choice of venue is also a signal of the party’s desire to put Georgia in play for the presidential race and a pick-up opportunity for two Senate seats.

Taking place at Tyler Perry Studios, which was built where a Confederate Army post once stood, the debate will likely have a significant focus on issues of race and voter suppression in the aftermath of concerns about the 2018 governor’s race that Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost.

Buttigieg, in particular, has struggled to gain support among black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency. In South Carolina, a state where the majority of Democratic voters are black, he is polling at less than 1% among black voters.

His campaign has also come under fire for using a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to promote his Douglass Plan, named for the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and intended to address systemic racism. And several people who were listed among South Carolinians who endorsed the plan criticized the campaign for erroneously suggesting that they supported Buttigieg’s candidacy.

Ahead of the debate, Biden campaign officials made reference to Buttigieg’s lack of support from nonwhite voters, saying the former vice president has a broad coalition that other candidates in the race have struggled to build. They also highlighted polls that show voters are most confident in Biden’s ability to defeat Trump, which is a chief concern for many Democratic voters.

Also looming over the debate are comments made by former President Barack Obama last week that struck some of the biggest fault lines in the party.

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality,” Obama said at a conference of wealthy liberal donors. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Obama’s comments came as progressives like Warren and Sanders offer policies that would, among other things, dramatically remake the health-care system and impose new and higher taxes on the wealthy. Biden and Buttigieg, both competing to be Obama’s heir, have a more modest approach.

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick entered the race last week without time to qualify for the debate. Wednesday is also the first debate in which former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro did not meet the requirements to join his rivals.

The debate will also play out as public testimony continues in the impeachment hearings against Trump. While the 10 Democrats on stage on Wednesday all support the inquiry, Biden could face renewed questions about his son Hunter’s involvement in Ukraine, an issue that Trump seized on and is at the heart of the impeachment proceedings.

There is no evidence that either Biden did anything wrong, although Democrats have criticized the arrangement of Hunter Biden sitting on the board of a Ukrainian company while Joe Biden was Obama’s vice president.

(Updates with Biden campaign comment in seventh paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyler Pager in Atlanta at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Max Berley

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