Most of the candidates appearing on the CNN Democratic debate stage are already in jeopardy. That means their performance will be a life or death moment for their candidacy.
Will endangered Democrats play dirty hoping to inflict a mortal wound to a challenger or will they abide by the Indivisible Unity Pledge and play fairly with constructive retorts?
It is the September debate requirements that are regulating the size of the Democratic field and adding anxiety to the candidates.
Meant to weed out the clingers, the self-funded, the self-promoters and the awkwardly inappropriate, the DNC criteria for the Fall debate are tough thresholds to meet. Candidates must have at least a two percent standing in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors. Thus far, only five of the 20 have qualified: Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders and Warren.
There are a dozen Dems in danger and their standing after the July 30-31 debates is crucial to their forward progress.
Tim Ryan, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett failed to meet the poll criteria for the second debate. They qualified on fundraising alone. Each understands his candidacy is in jeopardy. (Seth Moulton did not qualify for either debate. His withdrawal seems imminent.) Kirsten Gillibrand, whose first quarter fundraising has sustained her campaign, is also failing at the polls.
Also sweating the next debate will be Jay Inslee and Tulsi Gabbard – neither have reached the September criteria. Latecomer Tom Skeyer has yet to place in a poll. His personal funds can keep him afloat but they are no substitute for individual donors.
Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro and Andrew Yang are halfway there, having met the September fundraising threshold. And, Cory Booker has the poll numbers but not the donor base. Bill de Blasio needs more popular support to qualify.
Geoffrey Skelly over at 538 is tracking all 20 contenders and gives a thumbs up to Amy Klobuchar, O’Rourke and Booker. Each has a high chance of climbing onto the debate platform in September. Klobuchar confirmed she will meet the September Debate requirements on the Rachel Maddow Show the other night.
So much is at stake for the twenty Democrats. The top five will work to establish their preeminence while simultaneously knocking a contender off the chart. The bottom 15 must pick a challenger to unseat and prove their worthiness for the next round.
Playing dirty is a dangerous path. It could easily alienate supporters of the other candidate, draw comparisons to Trump and violate the Unity Pledge.
Yet there are some sharp-toothed rivals among the group who may think this is their best do-or-die strategy. Ryan and Gillibrand come to mind. Both have shown a willingness to fight and both represent factions where a fiery spirit is applauded. Will she go after Biden? Will Ryan attack Buttigieg or aim higher?
Among the top five, all but Buttigieg have experience with this level of engagement. Of course, each has her or his style. What may sound prickly or condescending or pugnacious or sexist to one ear sounds just right to another.
Stay tuned. The stage is set for July – and September.