In perhaps the most widely anticipated matchup of the Democratic nominating contest, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off for the first time on Thursday night in Houston, showcasing their significant contrasts in substance and style months before the first votes are cast.
The stakes are Texas-sized: Biden, who has maintained his lead despite several speaking blunders and prior debate blows, is expected to ding Warren, who is inching up on him with striking consistency. And Warren, who hovers around the number two slot, is likely to push the same progressive policies that have propelled her forward in the primary.
But Democrats who support Warren don’t want the wonk to attack the wanderer.
“She’s going to leave the cheap shots to everyone else,” Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who has long praised Warren’s career in Massachusetts and presidential candidacy, said. “Warren is on his heels. Biden is looking over his shoulder at her. The side by side comparison is invaluable at this point.”
“She doesn’t have to counter-attack,” Liuba Grechen Shirley, a former New York congressional candidate who is supporting Warren added, saying she’s hoping to hear about her universal child care platform.
The Massachusetts senator has been steadily gaining ground over the summer, translating her robust grassroots operation and small-dollar fundraising into double digit support in several early state polls. At times edging out Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for a slot just below Biden, it’s the progressive Democrat who is positioned directly next to the former vice president on stage at Texas Southern University.
Biden’s team is reportedly gearing up for a fight, with aides suggesting their candidate will use a portion of his time to call for personal financial transparency among candidates, seen as a potentially veiled attack on Warren. And nearly all Warren enthusiasts interviewed agreed the temptation will be there to take a dig. The two Democrats have fundamentally different track records on addressing corporate interests, one of the biggest components of Warren’s campaign. But most said she wins the night by zooming in on her signature plans, instead of taking a swipe.
"Since day one, Elizabeth Warren has known who she's fighting for, the American people,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), the Vice Chair of the Democratic caucus, told The Daily Beast. “Her message is resonating because she’s speaking directly to the challenges faced by families every day, whether that's student loan debt or the cost of child care—and she’s got solutions. Voters know that we need her plans and her policies in the White House if we’re going to ensure all Americans have a shot at success."
Notably, it’s many of those plans that present a direct contrast to Biden, who’s running a more centrist campaign based largely on electability against President Trump and restoring American values to the White House. But in making that case, some Democrats already spot holes in Biden’s argument as the best fit to take on the current president. It’s not just Warren supporters. Several Democrats in Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, who have not endorsed any candidate, spoke positively about Warren and hoped she wouldn’t get pulled down into a slugfest.
“I expect her to make an electability argument,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said. “She has a lot of supporters who appreciate her policy and her vision, and she has been gaining in beating Trump.”
Philippe Reines, a Democratic strategist who has been involved in past presidential debate prep, said her strategy should be consistent. “Here’s what Warren needs to do: keep doing what she’s doing. Ignore DC,” Reines said. “If she asked for advice it would be simple: declare straight out with all nine of her competitors looking on, ‘I am the one who can beat Donald Trump.’”
Biden maintains a comfortable lead in many Democratic primary polls. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey released earlier this week, he earns 29 percent support to Sanders’ 19 percent and Warren’s 18 percent. A more recent poll from the Economist/YouGov places Biden and Warren at a dead heat, each earning 26 percent. But that head start, her supporters argue, doesn’t necessarily predict long-term success for the former vice president.
Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, stressed that it’s “unknowable” who can beat Trump and that the debate should focus around the issues voters care most about, many of which provide an opportunity for Warren to present a direct contrast to Biden on stage.
“I would like to see her say something like, ‘Joe you were wrong on the war in Iraq, you were wrong on credit cards, deregulation, bankruptcy, and there is a value in being right about the big stuff,” he said.
One of Warren’s earliest backers outside of Massachusetts came from freshman Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI), who represents part of Macomb County, a battleground the Democratic nominee would need to capture from Trump in the 2020 general election.
While Biden often scores points for perceived electability, Levin said that Warren has the right formula to go head-to-head with Trump there.
“I have tremendous confidence in her,” Levin said about Warren ahead of Thursday night. “She’s rising because she has as super positive message for the bold change we need.” If attacked, he added, “she’ll stand up for herself, but she’ll do it in a way that isn’t nasty or tearing anyone else down.”