DETROIT - Wednesday marks the second night of the second round of Democratic debates, and it’s a pivotal night for all, but especially former vice president Joe Biden.
Biden has read all the modifiers in front of his front-runner status: shaky, fragile, vulnerable.
He'll try to leave the debate stage Wednesday night with a more positive adjective attached to his name.
The former vice president will likely be the center of attacks over his views on race and the future of the Democratic Party.
For several candidates, the debates will likely offer a last chance to be considered a serious contender for the party's nomination. Tougher rules set by the Democratic National Committee are expected to winnow the race. To qualify for the next debates in September, candidates must raise money from more donors and hit higher polling thresholds — a bar more than half of the candidates are at risk of missing.
Appearing in the second night of the debate in the order they will be standing on stage are Michael Bennet, senator from Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from New York, Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey, Joe Biden, former vice president, Kamala Harris, senator from California, Andrew Yang, entrepreneur, Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii, Jay Inslee, Washington governor, and Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City.
Harris and Booker will flank Biden on either side, and they are both expected to put the pressure on Biden, who had a poor showing at the first debate and saw a slide in the polls because of it.
Harris shot up in the polls and raked in money after her impassioned takedown of Biden during the last debate.
Harris tore into the former vice president during the June debate for not supporting federal busing orders as a means of desegregation when he was in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s, prefacing her comments by saying, "I do not believe you are a racist."
Biden defended his record but appeared caught off guard by the exchange, a shaky response that could give voters pause about his ability to go toe-to-toe with Trump on a debate stage or otherwise in a general election, said Michigan-based pollster Bernie Porn.
"Biden needs to do better," he said.
Now others are looking to follow Harris’s lead.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has already taken aim at Biden, calling him "an architect of mass incarceration" due to his role in passing a 1994 crime bill that disproportionately impacted African Americans. Kirsten Gillibrand has cryptically hinted she may go after Biden, too. "Stay tuned" was all her spokeswoman would say.
But there's some risk in attacking the early-front runner. Biden and his aides have said he's more prepared for the hits. His campaign has already highlighted Booker's vulnerability on criminal justice, noting that when he was mayor of Newark, the city's police department was hit with repeated allegations of police misconduct.
"If they want to argue about the past, I can do that," Biden said at a recent fundraiser in Detroit. "I got a past I'm proud of. They got a past that's not quite so good."
Several candidates have been putting out policy proposals ahead of the debate, likely as a way to get out in front of rivals' criticism.
Harris, who says she supports Sanders' plan for "Medicare for All," released a proposal Monday that stopped short of the proposal he and other more liberal candidates are backing. She said she envisions a role for private insurers — which Sanders' plan does not — and she would slow the transition to 10 years rather than four.
While Sanders won't be on stage with Harris, other advocates of the plan will be, and could take her to task for not going far enough. Biden's campaign, meanwhile, attacked from another direction, saying that she has been inconsistent and that her plan would undo the Affordable Care Act approved under President Barack Obama and force a large tax increase on middle-class families.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee frequently laments that Democrats aren't doing enough to address climate change, an issue that happens to be the sole focus of his struggling campaign, and he will no doubt try to hone in on the issue during Wednesday's debate. He's called for a climate-themed debate to no avail, written opinion articles about it and sent out a nonstop stream of fundraising emails asking donors to keep climate change (and his campaign) front and center.
Even if the topic doesn't come up during the debate, Inslee will get his way on Wednesday — at least briefly.
A super PAC supporting him, called Act Now on Climate, will run an ad during the debate attacking many of his better-known rivals for not making climate change the "No. 1 issue.“
Unless Inslee has a breakout night, however, finding a way to salvage his campaign may need to be his new top issue.
Yang is hoping to make more of an impression in this debate than he did in the last. He complained that he was given less than three minutes of air time during the first debate and that his microphone was cut off much of the time — unlike, say, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who frequently interrupted.
But CNN is keeping tighter control over interjections, which could give Yang an opening. The rules allowed Marianne Williamson , another bottom tier candidate at the edge of the stage, to seize the spotlight during Tuesday's debate.
Yang's signature issue is establishing a $1,000 a month "Freedom Dividend" for all Americans. But during last month's debate, he gave a rambling explanation of the idea. After Wednesday, he may not have much time left to make his case.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the intramural fight among Democrats is necessary to get a battle-tested nominee who is ready to face Trump on all topics, including race. But he said it's important for Democrats not to let the president off the hook for his racial rhetoric and policies, noting, "The Trump factor is always present." He said Trump's latest comments blasting Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings and his Baltimore-area district underscore voters' unease with Trump in the White House.
"People argue over whether we are beating up the ultimate nominee, but if we don't, Trump will," Simmons said. "People are testing each other. How you stand up under pressure is part of what the judgment is of who's the best candidate."