(CNN) — Seven Democratic contenders are meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday for the final debate of 2019, facing many voters who are still undecided less than two months before the primary season kicks off at the Iowa caucuses in early February.
Many voters across America are still looking to the debates to assess which Democrat has the mettle to take on President Donald Trump, who was impeached Wednesday, in next year’s general election contest.
The debate at Loyola Marymount University will look less diverse and more male-dominated than during any other match-up this year.
A number of notable debaters — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro — did not meet the Democratic National Committee’s criteria to take part. And California Sen. Kamala Harris earlier this month became the latest major candidate to drop out of the race.
At a time of Democratic indecision, the remaining contenders are all facing their own challenges. Former Vice President Joe Biden is clinging to his frontrunner status after a series of uneven performances. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has experienced something of a resurgence after having a heart attack earlier this year, but he and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are still splitting the far left of their party while trying to demonstrate that they can build a coalition to vanquish Trump in the general election.
Warren has dropped in the polls as she has struggled to win over voters with her plan for “Medicare for All,” which is becoming a less popular idea, according to the latest Fox News poll of likely Democratic voters. For weeks, Warren has also been fending off a strong challenge from South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized her approach to health care and pressed Warren to release her tax returns from the years that she worked for private legal clients.
Recently Buttigieg and Warren — who are battling over many of the same college-educated voters — have been sparring over which candidate is more transparent. Warren, who (like Sanders) refuses to take money from big donors, pushed Buttigieg to release the names of his bundlers and to open his fundraisers, which he did.
But that left Buttigieg exposed to criticism from both Warren and Sanders that he is catering to the elite after a series of glitzy fundraisers, including one in a wine cave.
During an event Monday in Rancho Mirage, Sanders made a pointed reference to Buttigieg’s fundraisers. “Other candidates go round, maybe they come to Palm Springs, or wherever, and they hold these fancy fundraisers for wealthy people. That is not what we do,” the Vermont senator said.
Shortly before Sanders’ event, his campaign manager Faiz Shakir mocked the unusual venue for Buttigieg’s event in a fundraising solicitation. “I am not entirely sure what happens when people pay huge sums of money to have dinner with a candidate at a wine cave with ‘1,500 Swarovski crystals,'” he said, “but I would guess they are not talking about standing up to the greed of the billionaire class of this country.”
Biden led the field at 26% in CNN’s latest poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, with Sanders holding second place at 20% and Warren in third at 16%.
The rest of the field did not break double digits with Buttigieg at 8% and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 5%. But Buttigieg has shown strong appeal in Iowa, where a win could give him a huge boost in momentum going into the other contests.
Three other candidates — entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — rounded out the field at 3% in the CNN poll. Businessman Tom Steyer, who will be on the stage on Thursday, registered at 1% in the poll.
Only seven candidates met the criteria to debate their rivals on the stage in Los Angeles. The two latest entrants to the race, Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, did not qualify for the debate.
Gabbard’s absence will be particularly notable during discussion of the impeachment of Trump. She was the sole Democrat to vote “present” on articles of impeachment against the President. In a tweet Thursday, she said her tweet was a protest vote “against the zero-sum game the two opposing political sides have trapped America in.”
“My vote and campaign is about freeing our country from this damaging mindset so we can work side-by-side to usher in a bright future for all,” Gabbard tweeted.