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What to watch in tonight's Democratic debate

Photo Illustration of Vice President Biden and Senator Warren
Photo Illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos via Sean Rayford and Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It's the moment everybody's been waiting for: Tonight's Democratic debate in Houston will be the first face-off on the primary stage between Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

Why it matters: They appeal to totally different wings in the Democratic Party. Warren's momentum has moved her to the No. 2 spot in national polls and narrowed Biden's lead. Tonight's matchup has the potential to be an even bigger split-screen moment than when Kamala Harris took on Biden at the first debate — and Biden's team knows it.

Reality check: There are 10 contenders, not just 2, on the stage in tonight's debate, which is hosted by ABC and airs from 8-11 p.m. ET.

What they're saying: Both campaigns downplayed any intention of getting personal or going negative, though a senior Biden campaign official acknowledged others' appetite for a "head-on narrative."

  • Biden will focus on "running his race regardless of who’s attacking him," the official told reporters. He'll make an "affirmative case about the progressive change he's made," and talk about rebuilding the middle class and protecting the Affordable Care Act.
  • A Warren campaign aide said she'll focus on how what's "broken" in America, what changes she wants and "how she's building a movement to make it happen."
  • Health care is one of the biggest contrasts between Warren and Biden. Biden wants to build on the ACA, while Warren supports Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All legislation.
  • But no matter what issue they're discussing, the biggest difference that Warren could try to highlight is the fact that she views the entire system as broken and she wants to overhaul it, while Biden views President Trump as a bigger problem than the system.

What else to watch in tonight's debate:

  • Texas has suffered 2 mass shootings in the past few weeks, meaning gun safety will likely be a dominant theme discussed tonight.
  • Beto O'Rourke went back home to El Paso to address one of those shootings, and that could be a way he tries to break through in tonight's debate.
  • Earlier debates hammered on the theme of beating Trump. Tonight's may delve into arguments for coalition-building.

Be smart: As Warren gains in the polls, no one has figured out how to attack her yet, so watch to see if and how other 2020 Democrats go after her or stay focused on Biden.

  • Sanders and Warren have resisted going after one another, but Sanders' temptation may be growing.
  • Harris' team signaled that she might skip over Biden to instead focus on President Trump. "She'll make the connection between his hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country," said Ian Sams, Harris' national press secretary.
  • Julián Castro — who's performed well at past debates by going after O'Rourke and highlighting issues like trans rights — has a message that might get a response from Biden. An aide said Castro plans to make the case that he's the best candidate to win over that "Obama coalition" of young voters, voters of color, students, and voters in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
  • FWIW: Biden plans a similar argument, said a campaign official. "He’s putting together a diverse coalition that stretches more broadly than other candidates in this race have shown they’re able to do."