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Opportunity faces Dems

By Jules Witcover - Syndicated Columnist | Oct 16, 2019

WASHINGTON – The dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates debating on a single stage in Ohio tonight have a choice. Each of them can use the event to explain why he or she is best qualified to beat Donald Trump next year. Or they can focus on his illegal use of his presidential power to seek political dirt from a foreign power on one of them, Joe Biden, to win a second term.

Any considerable television time spent on this story can give the former vice president an opportunity to counter suggestions he is on the ropes. Or it can soak up much oxygen needed by the lagging candidates to revive their prospects.

In the first three such debates this year, each of the 12, including Biden, focused on pressing his or her policy agenda for moving the party onto more liberal to progressive ground. Together, they displayed a deep bench of ideas and personalities from which their voters could choose.

Considering Trump’s pointed decision to aim at Biden, who led the pack in the early polling, some of the other contending Democrats may see a new vulnerability in Biden to exploit. One of them, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, has publicly questioned Hunter Biden’s wisdom in taking a high-paying job with a Ukrainian energy company while his father was playing a high-profile role in the Obama administration’s policy toward Ukraine. No charges against either Biden, however, have ever been filed.

The father has taken up defense of himself and his family, including writing a Washington Post op-ed laying out convincing evidence that Trump asked for Ukrainian aid to compromise him and his son. Joe has said of Hunter’s former job only that he told Hunter hoped he knew what he was doing. Hunter has since said he is quitting a similar job with a company in China.

In all this, the former vice president has demonstrated his deep family loyalty, but the political optics are hardly favorable. The son should have realized the appearance of such hires and declined the position.

Meanwhile, the energetic campaigning of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has elevated her as the foremost Democratic challenger to Biden, especially with the slippage in the pools of progressive rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, recently hospitalized with a heart attack and needing a strong showing in tonight’s debate to reassure voters.

Trump’s open call for dirt on Biden has seemed to breathe life into his determination to strike back, declaring in a Washington Post op-ed: “Please know that I’m not going anywhere. You won’t destroy me, and you won’t destroy my family. And come November 2020, I intend to beat you like a drum.”

Millions of eyes will be watching tonight to see whether Biden continues that fierce counterattack, as Warren sustains her steady rise, as Sanders strives to re-emerge from his political slide and physical setback, and the also-rans try to elbow back into the race.

Sanders’s heart attack obviously will draw attention to his performance at age 78. It also will be a reminder that Biden, at 76, will be 77 if elected.

Warren and Sanders, in far outraising Biden in campaign contributions to date, have succeeded in countering his early advantage in name recognition. But Biden has written in The Post: “The American people know me – and they know him (Trump). I will put my integrity in my whole career in public service to this nation up against Trump’s lack of integrity any day of the week.”

The Democratic National Committee, in sponsoring and running this election cycle’s presidential debates, has succeeded with few complaints in winnowing the field from 25 contestants, including many prominent governors and senators, to 12 debaters.

At that, the field remains larger than in older days when every mother’s son was told he could grow up to be president. Now that their daughters are being told the same, many have taken up the call, and one of them, Elizabeth Warren, suddenly seems to have a fair shot at getting there. In all, tonight’s debate is a must-watch event for political junkies on this year’s calendar.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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