Democratic debate live updates: Front-runners gear up for face-off in Houston

Democratic debate live updates: Front-runners gear up for face-off in Houston

The 10 highest-polling candidates will appear for a single night of debate in Houston hosted by ABC News and Univision — the smallest roster yet in the third matchup of Democratic National Committee-sanctioned primary debates, with a field that still counts 20.

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Here’s how the day is unfolding.

7 p.m. ABC News is live from the spin room in Houston

ABC News is live from the spin room in Houston, Texas, with complete coverage and analysis of the Democratic presidential debate.

Catch every minute on ABC News Live or on your favorite streaming device.

6: 33 p.m. Check out this time-lapse of ABC News debate prep

Check out this cool timelapse video showing crews setting up for the third 2020 Democratic primary debate in Houston, Texas.

6: 20 pm Harris shouts out ABC News and HBCU debate host

Earlier on Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris shouted out debate host site, Texas State University, a public historically black college and the location of ABC News’ presidential debate.

“Later today I’ll step on stage at @TexasSouthern. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, I’m hopeful this debate will shine a light on what we can do as a nation to strengthen and improve some of our nation’s most important higher education institutions.”

Later today I’ll step on stage at @TexasSouthern. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, I’m hopeful this debate will shine a light on what we can do as a nation to strengthen and improve some of our nation’s most important higher education institutions.

— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) September 12, 2019

5: 57 p.m. Trump talks debate watch plans, offers thoughts on Democratic candidates

He won’t be tuning in live, but President Trump still plans to watch tonight’s debate.

“It’s too bad I’m going to miss it,” Trump said when asked by ABC’s Kyra Phillips what he expects from the debate. “I’ll have to have it taped. I didn’t even tell them about that.”

Phillips asked Trump who he thinks his strongest opponent is, and he said he has his eyes on the top three in polls — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.

“They all have their weaknesses and their strengths. I think that they are very different. You certainly have a lot of different voices up there. But it would look to me like it would be Elizabeth Warren and looks like Joe maybe will be able to get there, maybe not. I don’t know. And certainly Bernie is there. He’s number three. But I think that’s — because they are so far in the lead, the three of them,” Trump said.

Trump was also asked if he respects any of the Democrats on the debate stage. He said he respects “all of them,” despite having made fun of the top contenders numerous times.

“I respect everyone,” he said. ‘Let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage to run for office. I respect all of them. See that. I’m getting to be much better as a politician. You never thought you’d hear that answer.”

ABC News’ Meridith McGraw and Kyra Phillips contributed to this report.

5: 32 p.m. – Biden advisers lay out debate objectives

Senior advisers to former Vice President Joe Biden told ABC News that they have three objectives they hope to accomplish in tonight’s debate: (1) Argue that action — not just plans — is needed, and that Biden has a proven record of getting things done; (2) defend the Obama administration’s record, and argue that building on that legacy is the best course of action; (3) push back on the notion that Biden’s ideas are merely incremental.

PHOTO: People wait to go through security before entering the Democratic presidential debate inside Texas Southern Universitys Health & PE Arena in Houston, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2src19.Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP
People wait to go through security before entering the Democratic presidential debate inside Texas Southern University’s Health & PE Arena in Houston, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

The advisors said that Biden is not on the stage to attack other Democrats, but said that he would be pointing out substantive policy differences between himself and other candidates on the stage—listing Warren and Sanders by name.

“You will see him raise questions about how some of these plans that not just Senator Warren but Senator Sanders and others bring forward. how they’re going to be paid for and how they’ll be implemented,” a senior adviser said.

The advisers were twice asked about how Biden would deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell specifically on guns, to which they said Biden would work with the other side in a bipartisan manner where he could. But if they prove uncooperative, Biden would take the fight directly to the American people and name check those in the GOP when he does, the advisers said.

Biden’s team downplayed the suggestion that his recent missteps on the trail were having an impact, and repeated their belief that voters know who he is, and that they will watch him on the trail and make their own determination on whether his age is an issue.

“I think the biggest mistake we can make in the campaign would be to not let Joe Biden be Joe Biden. People love that he speaks candidly, they know that sometimes he’s going to misstate a date or a name or a location. But that’s not you know–they also know that they’re getting the real deal from him, when they hear from him,” a senior advisor said.

ABC News’ Mary Bruce and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

5: 29 p.m. Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives for the debate

The Massachusetts lawmaker arrives at Texas State University for the debate.

4: 47pm Booker ‘Doing great’

Sen. Cory Booker says he’s “doing great” and still deep in debate preparations according to his press secretary, Sabrina Singh. She said to expect Booker to try to convey how he will “unite” and “heal” the country. Singh said Booker doesn’t have any pre-debate rituals, but he “really likes Mountain Dew” and is “crushing those constantly.”

4: 40 p.m. Trump campaign takes to the skies

The Trump campaign is flying a banner over the location of tonight’s Democratic debate.

Read more about that here.

4: 29 p.m. Fast Facts: The Debate Stage Tonight

Here are some fast facts about the candidates who will be on the debate stage tonight.

There will be over 177 years of political experience on the debate stage tonight.

1 Vice President: Biden

5 United States Senators: Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren

1 United States Representatives: O’Rourke

2 Mayors: Buttigieg and Castro

1 entrepreneur: Yang

Debate stage podium positions (left-right)

Klobuchar, Booker, Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, Warren, Harris, Yang, O’Rourke, Castro

Oldest candidate – Bernie Sanders (78)

Youngest candidate – Pete Buttigieg (37)

Most political experience – Former VP Joe Biden (46 years)

Least political experience – Andrew Yang

Mayor Pete Buttigieg will be the lone candidate on the stage tonight who has served in the United States military.

And here are some common themes

· 8 candidates attended law school – Biden, Booker, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, and Yang

· Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and Yale will be represented on the debate stage.

· Warren and Klobuchar were both the first female Senators to represent their perspective states.

· Castro and O’Rourke both have represented the state of Texas.

· Harris, Sanders, and O’Rourke have made campaign appearances to Texas Southern University prior to the ABC debate.

And some Senate themes

· Booker, Harris, Klobuchar all serve on the Senate Judiciary committee.

· Warren and Sanders both serve on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

· Harris and Sanders are on the Senate Budget committee.

ABC News’ Kelsey Walsh contributed to this report.

2: 15 p.m. Trump on what to expect from tonight’s debate

The Trump campaign sent around an email to supporters ahead of Thursday’s ABC Democratic primary debate running down “the top things” they are expecting from tonight—with “banning plastic straws” at the top of the list, of course.

“Here’s a list of the top things we expect to hear the Democrats debate tonight:

Banning plastic straws
Destroying all fossil fuels
Banning fracking everywhere
Raising your taxes to pay for illegal criminals
No more offshore drilling – taking jobs away from tens of thousands of people
Light bulb ban
And, no more cheeseburgers!”

The email, which doesn’t openly ask for donations, also has a countdown clock for tonight’s debate along with familiar messaging from the Trump campaign arguing that the candidates will be trying to prove who’s “the BIGGEST SOCIALIST.”

ABC News’ William Steakin contributed to this report.

1: 52pm Biden on ‘The Obama-Biden record’

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign shared a video on social media ahead of tonight’s debate, seemingly to get out in front of any attacks on Former President Barack Obama’s record. “The Obama-Biden record. Joe Biden is proud of it, will defend it, protect it, build on it,” the video says at the end.

1: 19pm – DNC Chair Tom Perez debriefs ahead of the debate

DNC Chair Tom Perez gaggled with reporters after a roundtable with voters from the Houston suburbs. He said about tonight’s debate winnowing the field of Democratic candidates:

“If you look at past primaries, This is exactly what happens on the Republican and the Democratic side. I’m very excited about tonight, what I know will happen tonight is we’re going to talk about issues. No one’s nobody’s gonna be talking about hand size tonight. We’re going to talk about how we reduce, how we address the gun epidemic, we’lll have a number of victims and family members there. We’re going to talk about, again, health care, climate change, we’re two years removed from a catastrophic storm. And we got a president who’s drawing Alabama In the aftermath of storms.”

10 a.m. Gov. Bullock’s debate night plans

Montana governor and one-time debate stage attendee Steve Bullock will watch tonight’s debate and play bar games with his campaign staffers at the 3-star Yelp rated Tipsy Crow Tavern in Des Moines, Iowa.

Bar games include, but are not limited to, cornhole and a large Connect 4.

While there is no giant Jenga, Tipsy Crow is dog friendly meaning there could be an appearance by the #TeamBullock office dog, Walter the Doodle.

ABC News’ Samantha Sergei contributed to this report.

9: 15 a.m. Inslee demurs on possible Cabinet position

In an interview that appeared in Heated, a new climate newsletter from New Republic contributor Emily Atkin, Former Washington State Gov. Inslee says he isn’t seeking a position in a Democratic administration and more on the candidates’ adopting some of his climate plans and what he hopes to see tonight. He is a former presidential candidate who advocated unsuccessfully for the Democratic National Committee to hold a climate change-themed debate.

ABC News’ Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.

9 a.m. Here’s how to watch the ABC News debate

The debate will be held at Texas Southern University, a public, historically black university, and will air from 8 to 11 p.m. ET across ABC, on Univision with a Spanish translation, locally on KTRK-TV and on ABC News Live. The streaming channel is available on the, Good Morning America and FiveThirtyEight websites and mobile phone apps, as well as on Hulu Live, The Roku Channel, Facebook Watch, AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube, Apple News, and Twitter.

And here’s how to watch the debate in Spanish

Podrás seguir el evento en vivo y en español a través de las pantallas de Univision y las plataformas digitales de Univision Noticias, como Facebook, YouTube y Periscope. Además el minuto a minuto de lo que sucede en el debate en nuestro live blog en

8: 10 a.m. FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos get down and dirty with the digits

FiveThirtyEight is partnering with Ipsos to poll voters before and after the candidates take the stage tonight.

Check out the “before” picture, with who voters are considering voting for, which candidates they think are most electable and more. But by Friday – same url, going live at ~1 p.m. EDT — we’ll have the “after” polling, showing who voters thought had the best (and worst) debate, who increased (and lost) support, whose electability ratings improved (or worsened) and more!

Also check out their …

Debate preview chat

And debate preview podcast

4 am Here’s your cheat sheet to the ABC News debate

The winnowing presidential primary field is five months out from the first ballots being cast – but Democrats all vying for the top of the ticket are still carving out their own paths to defeat President Donald Trump.

Those differing routes are never more apparent than when standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a debate stage.

“You know, we have a president, as everybody has acknowledged here, every day is ripping at the social fabric of this country, but no one man has the capacity to rip that apart,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in his opening pitch at the second Democratic debate. “It’s too strong. We’re too good … Mr. President, this is America. And we are stronger and great because of this diversity, Mr. President, not in spite of it.”

“Our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told the crowd at the same debate one night prior, as she articulated her theme of striving for bold reforms. “Donald Trump is part of a corrupt, rigged system … We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness. We’re going to solve them by being the Democratic party of big structural change.”

For the first time, the lineup includes polling front-runner Biden sandwiched in between Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, pitting “Middle Class Joe” against the leading progressives.

PHOTO: The stage is set for the Democratic debate at Texas Southern Universitys Health & PE Center in Houston, Sept. 12, 2src19.Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television
The stage is set for the Democratic debate at Texas Southern University’s Health & PE Center in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.

But as the former vice president relies on winning back the voters that propelled the first African-American president, Barack Obama, to the White House, liberals Sanders and Warren are running a different kind of race, seeking to forge their own coalition to capture the party’s presidential nomination.

Much like in 2008, the 2020 contest could see a state-by-state battle for the nomination — with each caucus and primary bringing a different front-runner and resetting the path to victory.

The divisions in the candidates’ strategies were made clear at the second debates in Detroit, when several Democrats took aim at Obama’s presidency — both directly and indirectly — and the very legacy Biden is running to extend.

Rehashing the Obama legacy

Despite the former president being the party’s most popular member, the more liberal flanks and some lower-polling candidates forced Biden to fend off the attacks on his former boss, particularly on health care and immigration.

“Right now we have a dysfunctional health care system. Eighty-seven million uninsured or underinsured, 500,000 Americans every year going bankrupt because of medical bills, 30,000 people dying while the health care industry makes tens of billions of dollars in profit,” said Sanders, who along with Warren spent a large portion of their time vigorously defending Medicare for All.

“Medicare for All will fix that and that’s why I’ll fight for it,” said Warren about the legislation introduced by Sanders and seen by some as a more comprehensive replacement for Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

“The reality is that our plan will bring health care to all Americans under a Medicare for All system,” said California Sen. Kamala Harris, defending her plan which is more of a hybrid health insurance system that allows private companies to be able to offer health insurance plans within the Medicare system for consumers. “Your plan by contrast leaves out almost 10 million Americans,” she said of the Sanders.

On immigration, although the previous White House took steps to overhaul the immigration system — even using executive powers to protect Dreamers — several 2020 Democrats took aim at the three million deportations under the Obama presidency, leaving Biden as the sole navigator of those criticisms.

At one point, Booker interrupted the elder statesman: “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

PHOTO: Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders addresses a Medicare for All town hall campaign event, Aug. 3src, 2src19, in Florence, S.C.Meg Kinnard/AP
Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders addresses a Medicare for All town hall campaign event, Aug. 30, 2019, in Florence, S.C.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, too, challenged Biden over Obama-era immigration policies on that stage, without using Obama’s name.

“Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” said Castro, who served under Obama. “My immigration plan would also fix the broken legal immigration system because we do have a problem with that.”

Biden responded by calling out his fellow Democrats for unleashing friendly fire against Obama instead of railing against Trump.

“To compare him to Donald Trump, I think is absolutely bizarre,” Biden said at one point during the July debate.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg echoed Biden’s sentiment to reporters in Las Vegas days after the debate, saying, “[I’m] a little puzzled that when we’re all running against President Trump, some folks felt the need to run against President Obama.”

Even the president saw the last debate as more of a disavowing of Obama than of himself.

At a rally in Cincinnati following the second round of debates, Trump called out his Democratic rivals for unleashing on his predecessor, telling the crowd, “The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me practically.”

Those who took aim at parts of Obama’s record — either by backing Medicare for All over Obamacare or by rejecting certain aspects of his immigration agenda — might run into a tougher road ahead as they seek to win back those voters who drifted from Democrats and turned to Trump.

Finding a lane in a still crowded primary

At this next debate, the contenders outside of the top tier — standing on the edge of the stage and in need of a breakthrough — will likely be trained on finding their lane by giving Democratic primary voters more than just a return to the pre-Trump era (like what Warren and Sanders are pitching), without alienating moderates or disapproving of the Obama legacy (which Biden is campaigning on).

For some in the field hoping to pick up voters that might stray from the 76-year old Biden, that middle ground oftentimes reflects a message of “generational change,” “unity” and rising above the divisiveness.

Buttigieg, who touts a refrain fueled with urgency, said over the weekend in New Hampshire, “None of us can afford to wait to act on our current problems, because they’re becoming a crisis … It’s not enough to think up a good policy. We have to unify Americans around these solutions or nothing will actually get done.”

“The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president, but the unification of the people,” he added.

Harris invokes her prosecutorial past and compelling backstory to appeal to a broad coalition — often telling voters as she did in the last debate, “I come from fighters … My sister Maya and I joke we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults that marched about this thing called ‘justice.’ And I’m prepared to march with you, to fight with you for the best of who we are, and to successfully prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump.”

“I’m going to make sure the American people know about my strong, compelling vision for the future of our country. I believe that I can bring our country together, that we can reunite the old Obama coalition and then take that to the next level,” Castro, who frequently pushes for a fairer system to even the playing field, said in Beaufort, South Carolina last month.

Booker, who is looking to assemble support by inspiring his audience, told the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention over the weekend: “Beating Donald Trump is the floor it is not the ceiling. Beating Donald Trump gets out of the valley, but it does not get us to the mountaintop. I want to go to the mountaintop.”

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, newly impassioned by a mass shooting in his native El Paso that killed 22 people last month, is on an unvarnished quest to fill the void in moral leadership he sees in the era of Trump.

“Though we’re connected to a president with no values and no morals, we’re also connected as a people by our ambitions and aspirations,” he told reporters over the weekend, later admitting that he might swear on the debate stage. “Democrats, Republicans, independents, before any of those things, we are Americans first and need to start treating each other like it.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who traded few barbs at the previous two debates while focusing on her roots in the Midwest — and her ability to work across the aisle — seeks to restore dignity to the presidency for “all of America.”

“I don’t want to be the president for half of America, I want to be the president for all of America,” she said Saturday after her speech to the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

For entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is carving out his own base in the shape of an eclectic cult-like following, the debate stage is an opportunity to attract a wide swath of voters, across the ideological spectrum, as his substantive campaign seeks to make the masses “think harder.”

PHOTO: Former Housing the Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates, July 31, 2src19, in Detroit.Paul Sancya/AP
Former Housing the Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates, July 31, 2019, in Detroit.

“We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. If those states sound familiar, those are all the swing states that Donald Trump needed to win and did win. So to me this was a straight automation story that immigrants are being scapegoated for economic problems they have little to nothing to do with … It’s not immigration, it’s automation,” he said in a recent interview with CBS This Morning.

In store this time around will be opportunities for the contenders to hash out differences that first drew sparks in the earlier rounds and across different stages.

The main event

But the main show will be at center stage, where Biden and Warren will face off side-by-side, as she continues to narrow the gap between them in recent polling. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll out this week, the former Harvard professor saw a six-point gain from June.

Biden argued at a campaign stop in Laconia, New Hampshire on Friday that sharing the stage “will be a good thing” because he says, “I’ve never had to break through.”

Warren, too, appeared to dismiss a potential clash with Biden, telling ABC News it does “not really” change her approach.

“The way I see this is, this is a chance to talk to people all across the country, about how we’ve got a government that works great for the wealthy and the well connected, just not working for everyone else. And we got a chance to change that in 2020,” she said.

While all eyes seem to be on the moderate vs. progressive showdown between the two, an advisor for Biden suggested that he will be ready to take on Warren’s “I have a plan for that” mantra — saying Biden’s plans were anything but middle of the road.

“I expect you’ll see Biden echo an important point he made during last week’s climate forum: We need more than plans, we need a president who can deliver progress on the most pressing issues facing Americans, which Joe Biden has proven he can throughout his career,” the official told ABC News.

ABC News’ John Verhovek and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.


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