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Column: Why Georgia's Democratic presidential debate could be interesting to watch
08292018 TOM BAXTER
Tom Baxter

You could almost get the impression, reading Twitter, that so far the Republicans have been more interested in the Democratic presidential debates than the Democrats.

Among Democrats, chatter about the early debates in Miami, Detroit and Houston has faded quickly under the daily gusher of breaking news. The race has tightened considerably, but the debates don’t yet seem to have produced a moment that has captured the Democratic audience. 

For Republicans, on the other hand, each large gathering of Democrats has been like a dopey, reassuring sitcom. Every Beto O’Rourke overreach, every jab at Joe Biden has been for this audience a pleasant distraction from the news of impeachment in Congress, crackups in the White House and chaos in Syria. 

Tuesday night’s debate in Westerville, Ohio, will be the first to include Tom Steyer, the billionaire who has staked his entire campaign on impeaching Donald Trump. That should at least bring up the subject, which has been largely avoided so far, and change the debate into something less entertaining to Republicans. 

By the time the Democrats get together in Georgia next month, at a location yet to be designated but presumed to be in the Metro Atlanta area, the buzz around the debates will have changed considerably. The Georgia debate will be the first to be held within a year of the 2020 election, and there will have been another month of developments in stories that have grown with the ferocity of forest fires over the past couple of weeks. 

All this should give the November debate a sharpness, which the early debates have so far lacked. Another thing that might help: fewer moderators. The unwieldiness of a large field of candidates has been compounded in the first debates by squads of up to five moderators. The Georgia debate will be hosted by the Washington Post and MSNBC. One good reporter from each organization would be quite sufficient. 

The Democratic National Committee has tightened the requirements to qualify for the November debate, so it should be somewhat less crowded. As of Monday, eight candidates have met the requirement: Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren.

Four days before the Georgia debate on Nov. 20, the California Democratic Party and Univision are hosting a presidential forum focusing on Latino issues at the party-nominating convention in Long Beach. This isn’t one of the officially sanctioned debates, but as an early-voting state next year, California is hugely important to all the Democrats — and more so to Harris. That weekend event could determine whether she gets to the Georgia debate with enough energy left in her campaign to keep going. 

It’s interesting to contemplate what kind of debate we might be looking for if Trump had not determined early on that Biden was the greatest threat to his presidency and set off the sequence of events that at last moved House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings. Is there anything he could have done to Warren that could possibly have landed the president in this much hot water? 

With Sanders’ health in question and Hunter Biden stepping forward for the first time this week to answer questions about his foreign business dealings, Warren may be the Democratic frontrunner by the time the debate is held here. That’s what a lot of Republicans have wished for, and the Georgia debate could give them an early indication of whether they’ve wished for the right thing. 

The early caucuses will be only a couple of months away when the Georgia debate is held, so it will be one of the last opportunities for those Democrats still struggling to reach the inner circle, like Pete Buttigieg or Corey Booker, to score on a big stage. 

The DNC committed to 12 candidate debates, six in 2019 and six more in 2020. You have to wonder if it will take that many. After the big March 3 primary, which includes California, Texas and about a dozen other states, there may not be much left to debate. For once, Georgia has a date all to itself next year — March 24. That doesn't seem very late in the process but next year it will be.

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.

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