What to Look For During Tonight's Democratic Debate

Twelve candidates will take to the stage tonight in the fourth Democratic debate of the 2020 primary, which will be broadcast on CNN from 8-11 p.m. Eastern Time.

With all those candidates, this will actually be America's biggest ever political debate. So to keep track of it all, here's a handy guide:

Joe Biden

Opportunity Zone: Impeachment! The former veep had wanted to stay out of the fray at first, but a week ago he held a very presidential-looking speech to tell us all that he believes President Donald Trump should be impeached. As the only contender to have worked in the White House, tonight is another opportunity to keep that presidential flame alive.

And Danger Zone: Well, being Joe Biden. It could easily fall apart if Biden flubs some lines or comes across looking flat and unenergetic. It's also crucial he differentiates his actions and those of his son Hunter, and those of Trump. The differences are nuanced but crucial, and being able to actually explain it in a simple way voters understand is key.

Elizabeth Warren

Danger Zone: Having briefly tipped into the frontrunner position, the senator should be on the lookout for attacks. With Democrats realizing Biden isn't the only target that needs to be downed on their path to the White House, Warren will need to stay on her toes and have her pen at the ready to hit back at criticism sure to come her way.

Bernie Sanders

Opportunity... or Danger Zone: This will be the senator's first major event since having a heart attack earlier this month. As the oldest candidate in the field, Sanders' health will be a hard sell for some voters and he needs to put their concerns to bed. He will want to look like he can yell about socialism from the moment his name is called to when producers cry out "it's a wrap" three hours later.

Pete Buttigieg

Opportunity Zone: Fight, fight, fight. Okay, there won't be any punches drawn, but the South Bend, Indiana, mayor has been out swinging the last few weeks. He's hit back at Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke's mandatory gun buyback plans, O'Rourke's tax-exempt institutions kerfuffle and, most notably said Trump can't be beaten with Warren's small donor "pocket change" and that the Massachusetts senator has been "extremely evasive" about the tax costs of Medicare for All. If anyone lands a hit on Warren, expect it to be Buttigieg.

Kamala Harris

Opportunity Zone: As impeachment talk swirls, the senator has been leaning into her past life as a prosecutor in interviews and reportedly in a new stump speech. This should work nicely with Harris' tendency to speak straight to Trump during the debate. While a candidate's past has absolutely nothing at all to do with the impeachment process, it's a good chance to contrast herself with the Oval Office holder.

Andrew Yang

Opportunity Zone: While never a critic's favorite, Yang—and Tulsi Gabbard—always see a huge uptick in Google traffic during debates. But for such a crowd favorite with more than 100 policies on his site, Yang's talking time is always quite low. Since opening the last debate by offering a trial of his Universal Basic Income for a number of families, this is a crucial time for Yang to expand on plans and go further than the model minority stereotypes he's accused of wielding too often.

Democratic Debate Candidates Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden
Democratic presidential hopefuls stand onstage ahead of the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019. The fourth debate will take place in Ohio on October 15 and is hosted by CNN and The New York Times. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty

Cory Booker

Opportunity Zone: While Beto O'Rourke was the only candidate to endorse March For Our Lives' progressive gun policy, Booker has become increasingly outspoken about his progressive plans. He's also been publicly taking shots at O'Rourke and Buttigieg's more moderate gun reform plan. This is his night to double down, and walk away with a line as memorable as dipping into the Kool-Aid.

Beto O'Rourke

Danger Zone: Church and state. O'Rourke last week seemed to call for churches and religious organizations to lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage. (He later clarified that he would only revoke this status if organizations discriminated based on sexual orientation or gender identity when providing public services.) Other major candidates have disavowed what appeared to be his position, which could end up being more controversial than his promise last debate that "Hell Yes" he'd have a mandatory buyback of assault weapons as president. Moderators should ask about the tax exempt issue and, if they don't, candidates like Warren and Buttigieg should take up the cross.

Tom Steyer

Opportunity Zone: The wildcard. Having been accused of buying his way to the stage, the former hedge fund manager really only needs to do one thing: introduce himself and explain what on earth he's doing there. Ideally, he'll also differentiate himself from the billionaire currently sitting in the White House and explain how his gold-lined Wall Street resume makes him an "outsider" and Warren and Sanders as part of the "establishment," as he's dubiously claimed.

Amy Klobuchar

Danger Zone: Being forgettable. Klobuchar has really struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Most Democratic excitement has gone toward more progressive candidates, while Biden has gobbled up Klobuchar's more moderate crowd. She really needs to say something she, and no candidate, has said before in hopes of staying in this race.

Tulsi Gabbard

Opportunity Zone: Well, showing up would be a good start. The Hawaii Congresswoman threatened to boycott the debate, but taking the stage a week after U.S. troops withdrew from northeast Syria is the perfect chance to set herself apart and lean on her military experience. But despite being the only candidate to have served on two tours in the Middle East, Gabbard might, and should, face tough questions about previously meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

Julian Castro

Danger Zone: Barack Obama's former housing secretary has had some controversial moments in these debates, but nothing is more pressing than just making the next one. Like O'Rourke and Klobuchar, Castro has not yet hit the increased polling criteria for the November debate. So expect some big lines tonight because it is very much do or die.

Update (10/16 10.28 a.m.): This article was updated to clarify earlier comments by Beto O'Rourke on tax-exempt institutions.

What to Look For During Tonight's Democratic Debate | Politics