What to expect from the Texans in the second presidential debate

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The second round of Democratic presidential debates –with 20 candidates — is upon us. The top tier candidates are mingled, hopefully for the last time, with the unserious, barely-registering crowd of Democrats who are going to bow out anyway in the coming weeks and months.

The first night of the CNN-hosted debate, on Tuesday, will feature Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Julián Castro are on Wednesday night. 

Both Texans O’Rourke and Castro have so far struggled to gain traction in the overly crowded field, but there are six months until the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses. There is still an opportunity for an O’Rourke comeback story and for Castro to make a mark nationally. And both are hiring like they’re in it for the long haul. 

Standing out

Democratic primary voters continue to say electability — beating Donald Trump — is more important to them than ideological purity, or agreeing with a candidate on all the issues.

Matt Angle, a Democratic political strategist and founder of the Texas-based PAC Lone Star Project, told The Signal that in order to stand out on the debate stage, O’Rourke and Castro would both need to show that they can take a punch from Donald Trump and deliver one as well. 

“These candidates have to demonstrate not only that they can best each other, but that they can beat Donald Trump, and that they won’t allow him to pigeonhole them ideologically or attack them personally,” Angle said.

Showing, he said, the candidates can go head to head with the president during the general election in November is on most voters’ minds.

During the last debate, Harris took on Biden on the issue of race, showcasing her ability to smartly land a punch. Castro did the same to O’Rourke on the issue of immigration.

Politely but forcefully taking on a Democratic rival also ensures much-needed press attention for most of the candidates on the stage who don’t have high name ID or are struggling in the polls.  

Brandon Rottinghaus, political scientist at the University of Houston, said Castro needed to break any impression that he might be a one-note candidate who only focuses on immigration, though Rottinghaus believes immigration would still play a central role in next week’s debate.

Earlier this week, O’Rourke appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, calling Trump a “bully.”  

“My task [for the debate] is to define this as a moment of truth,” O’Rourke said on the show. “You’ve got somebody holding mass rallies saying ‘send them back,’ someone who is locking up kids in cages,” referring to the migrant detention centers.  

Also this week on PBS’ Firing Line with Margaret Hoover, Castro indicated he may have to challenge Biden on immigration at the debate. The former San Antonio mayor anticipates defending his proposal to decriminalize border crossings. 

“I don’t think I’m going to have a choice,” Castro said. “I absolutely will defend” the policy, “with Vice President Biden or with anybody else.”

The Trump campaign continues to spend the most in digital advertising in Texas, a sign — along with polls showing Biden either beats or ties Trump —the state is not safe for this Republican president. 

An aggregate of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows O’Rourke at 2.8% in the polls and Castro at 1 percent. Both O’Rourke and Castro campaigns has expanded their campaign teams in recent weeks. Biden continues to be the frontrunner in the race.

The third round of Democratic primary debates is in Houston this September. 

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