Bennet, Hickenlooper, Other Moderate 2020 Democrats Look For Opening After Debate

Election 2020 Moderates
Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press
In this June 27, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks during the Democratic primary debate in Miami.

These Democrats are issuing dire warnings about the prohibitive expense of big-ticket liberal promises. They bemoan that the party is ignoring politicians who found success in areas that supported President Donald Trump. One even echoes the Republican talking point that Democrats are becoming socialists.

Yet the moderates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination are running into a wall: Joe Biden.

The former vice president is the most prominent centrist in the race, eating up the political oxygen with his near universal name recognition. But his troublesome moments in Thursday's debate are prompting some of his rivals to assess whether there's room for them to establish a stronger foothold in the moderate lane.

"As front-runners like Biden stumble ... it creates more opportunities for Michael in this race," said Craig Hughes, an adviser to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the two dozen Democrats running for president.

Biden is managing the fallout from a stinging attack launched on the debate stage this week by Kamala Harris. The California senator blasted him for his recent comments about once working with segregationists and his past opposition to mandated school busing. The critique seemed to catch Biden off guard, leaving him appearing defensive as he struggled for an appropriate response.

He appeared at an event on Friday sponsored by the Rev. Jesse Jackson where Biden noted his "respect" for Harris and pledged to be a "president who stands against racism."

Biden has already weathered a series of controversies on issues such as abortion and race that animate the Democratic base without losing his early front-runner status. But some of his rivals sense vulnerability and would like to challenge his position as the leading antidote to the unabashedly liberal candidacies of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Election 2020 Moderates
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
In this June 27, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during the Democratic primary debate in Miami. Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press

Beyond Bennet, the moderate pack includes Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. They've all argued against expensive proposals such as free college or single-payer health care, warning that those ideas are impractical and wouldn't resonate with voters in the more politically competitive areas that they've represented.

Some made that case again on the debate stage this week but didn't generate the buzz of fresher-faced newcomers like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro or have breakout performances like Harris.

"The voters don't want them at all," Cenk Uygur, of the liberal media group The Young Turks, said of moderate candidates. "If moderates had a prayer of winning, Klobuchar would be in the top, Michael Bennet would be in the top. Instead they're at nearly zero percent."

Even if he continues to stumble, Biden isn't likely to bleed support quickly enough to free up some of his voters and media attention for another, more pragmatic alternative. To qualify for the third debate in September, candidates will have to poll at 2% in at least four polls and collect donations from 130,000 people — a benchmark that favors candidates who can build a passionate online following and that is likely to be impossible to meet for many centrist contenders.

Bullock couldn't even meet less stringent thresholds to qualify for the first round of debates, and he spent the two nights holding town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire and appearing on the late-night TV show "The Colbert Report." His campaign was happy at the attention he got but remains stunned by the Democratic National Committee's debate rules.

"The people being pushed out aren't necessarily moderates, but pragmatists who have a history of getting things done," said Matt McKenna, a Bullock adviser. "Who knows if that was their intention but that certainly is what happened."

Hickenlooper was on the debate stage, where he continued to castigate the Democratic Party as opening itself up to an attack as being socialist for backing programs like the Green New Deal and single-payer health care. Even though Hickenlooper didn't have a breakout performance, a spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the campaign pulled in triple its daily average in donors after the debate. But, she stressed, there needs to be more.

"It's correct that if moderates want to see moderate options on the debate stage beyond Biden, that they will need to become small-dollar donors," Hitt said.

One candidate who has more centrist rhetoric and had a successful debate night was South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who doesn't embrace the moderate label but could conceivably occupy that space in the upper echelon of candidates. But Buttigieg has struggled to appeal to black voters, who polls show are more moderate than the party's white voters, and he is dealing with the aftermath of a fatal shooting of a black man by a white city police officer.

Analysts note that Buttigieg, who argued against immediately moving to single-payer at Thursday's debate, shows the importance of changing the way moderates are discussed in Democratic politics — traditionally as white politicians who represent conservative-leaning areas.

Matt Bennett of Third Way, a group that supports centrist Democrats, noted that black candidates such as Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker can also espouse more moderate approaches, though they haven't embraced that label during this campaign.

Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network said the debates revealed that the fault line in the primary may not be liberal versus moderates, but generational. Sanders, a self-professed democratic socialist and one year older than Biden, defended the former vice president against attacks from younger politicians that his time had passed. Rosenberg argued that Sanders and Warren embrace the left-middle divide that has obsessed the party since the 1980s but the younger candidates on stage did not.

"I don't think Democrats are coming to this election with ideological preferences," Rosenberg said. "I think they're looking for strong leadership."