WASHINGTON D.C. - Same stage. Same rules. But the Democrats' second back-to-back debate is fueled by star power.
Debate night two marks the first time top-tier presidential candidates will confront one another in person over who is best suited to lead the Democratic effort to oust President Donald Trump in 2020.
The decision of who would debate on which night came down to a blind draw, though many of the early front-runners ended up slated for the second night of the debate, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.
Also joining them will be Marianne Williamson, best-selling author and spiritual leader, John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor and entrepreneur, Andrew Yang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and California Congressman Eric Swalwell.
Biden and Sanders, who are first and second in most polls, will take center stage, and Buttigieg and Harris will be at their flanks.
It's Joe Biden's night to show he commands the field. But it's Bernie Sanders' chance to show he's the one who understands today's Democratic Party. Pete Buttigieg could try to sound like a leader on the national stage, and Kamala Harris may aim to make a more personal impression.
Ten candidates will be on stage. But two — Biden and Sanders — will most starkly represent the divide over the direction of the Democratic Party.
Sanders, a Vermont senator and democratic socialist, has proudly pushed the party to the left, arguing Democrats must embrace the progressive base that fueled his insurgent 2016 candidacy. Many of his 2020 rivals have paid attention, embracing proposals such as "Medicare for All" that have been on the fringe in prior elections.
Biden, however, has resisted the leftward rush. He rarely invokes Sanders by name, but bemoans the idea that to be seen as a liberal today, candidates must embrace socialism. He argues such moves will turn off the very working-class voters that moved away from Democrats in 2016 to embrace Trump.
Though Biden is well-known nationally and popular in some places Democrats have lost recently, such as working-class swing states Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, he would be the oldest person ever elected president, with a nearly five-decade record for opponents to comb through, at a time many in his party are clamoring for a new generation to take the reins. The notoriously chatty former senator also tends to commit verbal gaffes and faced recent accusations by some women of uninvited, though nonsexual, touching.
Expect plenty of skirmishes between these two. Sanders has already knocked Biden for his vote backing the Iraq War and derided his big-money fundraisers. The former vice president has tried to stay above the fray — but that task could get harder under the glare of the debate stage spotlight.
Presidential hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. (Joe Raedle/Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
For White House hopefuls like Sens. Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the debate offers a crucial opportunity to break through the crowded field.Harris has successfully used her perch on Capitol Hill to spur viral moments that highlight her prosecutorial past, including her tough questioning of Attorney General William Barr. But she's struggled to convey — in quick sound bites — who she is as a human being. She's tried to get more personal recently, talking about watching her mother struggle with racism.
For Gillibrand, the debate could be a make or break moment as she's struggled to make inroads in polls and fundraising. She's an unabashed feminist on the campaign trail and will likely try to rally women with passionate defense of reproductive rights.
Pete Buttigieg has been the darling of the Democratic Party for months. The articulate mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is both gay and an Ivy League-schooled military veteran, is seen as a potentially effective opponent against Trump.
But he walks onto the debate stage confronting some of the toughest issues in American life: race and policing.
He has been criticized back home for his handling of a fatal police shooting of a black man. He'll likely be confronted about his record as mayor and his management of a largely white police department.
He seemed to test some potential debate night messages during a fundraiser this week.
"Leadership consists of facing reality," he said. "And right now, I'm afraid our leaders at the national level are at war with reality."
But just by being there, the 37-year-old Buttigieg makes age and the future of the party an issue. Watch for whether he can cast his challenges as experience that qualifies him to lead the nation.
The future of health care split Democrats during the first debate, with only Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio saying they'd back the abolition of private insurance. Watch for more divides on Thursday. Sanders' "Medicare for All" proposal doesn't include private insurance, but Biden hasn't been willing to embrace such an approach.
Meanwhile, the searing photo of a father and daughter face-down in the Rio Grande has dominated talk of the migrant crisis this week. Look for whether Democrats offer many detailed proposals of their own beyond criticizing Trump's hardline immigration policy.
Biden released part of his immigration plan on Monday, proposing that Congress grant immediate citizenship to 800,000-plus U.S. residents who were brought to the country illegally as children. But his outline was heavier on barbs at Trump.
Other hopefuls may have a hard time standing out. Williamson and Yang are political outsiders with low name recognition. Bennet and Swalwell also have low name recognition, and Hickenlooper, though more well-known, is just another white male baby boomer in a party filled with younger and more diverse candidates that better reflect its base.
During Wednesday's face-off, the Democrats and moderators couldn't stop talking about Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, giving him as much or more airtime than Trump, who is their actual opponent in 2020. Key to the McConnell discussion was his drive to fill the bench and deny Democrats a chance to reshape the Supreme Court.
Listen for whether the Kentucky Republican makes another virtual star turn on Thursday night, hours after the high court dealt a huge blow to efforts to combat the drawing of electoral districts for partisan gain but also put a hold on the Trump administration's effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.