ATLANTA (AP) — Four Democrats jumbled at the top of the party's presidential primary are looking to begin separating themselves in Wednesday's final debate before Thanksgiving begins sapping voters' attention — and that may mean sharpest criticism for the one with the most-recent rise, Pete Buttigieg.
The 37-year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has gained significant ground in recent months in Iowa, which holds the nation's first caucuses on Feb. 3. But with top-tier status comes added scrutiny, as the other front-runners discovered in four previous debates throughout the summer and fall.
Former Vice President Joe Biden had to swat back criticism of past work with segregationist Senate colleagues and whether he was too supportive of some unpopular Obama administration policies.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has faced weeks of tough questions about her support for a "Medicare for All" universal health insurance plan, and Bernie Sanders has been forced to prove he's electable and has the necessary stamina for the race, especially after the 78-year-old's October heart attack.
The pressure will be on for Buttigieg to demonstrate he can woo black and other minority voters and that his experience running a city of only about 100,000 residents is enough to qualify him for the White House.
"Anytime a candidate pops up above the pack, there's a vigorous effort to vet them," said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas. "Buttigieg is going to have to prove that his recent rise is not just a flash in the pan."
Previous attacks against Biden, Warren and Sanders failed to reshape the race, but the trio likely will face their own share of criticism on the debate stage in Atlanta — even if it's Buttigieg could get a disproportionate amount of attention.
Medicare for All has dominated the primary and could again be a top topic following Warren releasing plans to spend $20.5 trillion on fully government-funded health care, but also saying implementation of the program may take three years — drawing criticism both from moderates like Biden and Buttigieg who say she's trying to distance herself from an unpopular program, and Sanders supporters who see the Massachusetts senator's support for universal coverage wavering.
The debate comes amid uncertainty about the Democratic field, with some in the party, particularly donors, worried there's no one positioned to defeat President Donald Trump. Former President Barack Obama took the unusual step last week of warning the party against moving too far to the left.
Speaking to that anxiety, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered the Democratic race last week. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is openly flirting with a bid — though neither will be on stage Wednesday.
A Georgia backdrop may be fitting for such doubts since Democrat Stacey Abrams was narrowly defeated in the gubernatorial race last year — raising Democratic hopes of winning in 2020 a state that hasn't supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. Democrats scored big, recent wins in Louisiana and Kentucky's gubernatorial races, but in both cases, the winning candidates' shied away from ambitious policies frequently discussed in the primary field, such as Medicare for All.
The field's latest faceoff also comes as Washington is consumed by the impeachment inquiry against Trump, who is accused of pressuring leaders in Ukraine to uncover damaging information on Biden. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the "express direction" of the president and pushed a "quid pro quo" Trump wanted.
The top Democrats running for president all support Trump's impeachment, leaving little room for disagreement. But Biden has for weeks talked up being the candidate Trump was most wary of facing as he vies for reelection — a theme he may hit during the debate.
Meanwhile, there are seven more Democrats without promising polling who will just be hoping for the chance to shine before a prime-time audience.
"We're at the phase in the campaign where voters are beginning to make decisions, and they're beginning to see which of these candidates can go up against Trump and which can serve as president," said Jesse Ferguson, who worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker faces especially intense pressure. He's yet to meet the Democratic National Committee's polling requirements for the December debate in California, and his campaign acknowledges that he needs a big night.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar offered the model last month by repeatedly calling for a "reality check" on Warren and her sweeping progressive agenda. Klobuchar's campaign said the subsequent few days were her best fundraising period yet. But it still hasn't shown up in most polls.
For California Sen. Kamala Harris, it's the first debate since cutting her operation elsewhere to concentrate on Iowa. Like Klobuchar, Harris has qualified for the December stage but needs more than the minimum polling performance to make any serious play for the nomination.
The trio of senators might also try and pile on Buttigieg, whose campaign insists he's ready. The mayor was noticeably more aggressive during the October debate, joining Klobuchar with a more moderate argument against the likes of Warren and Sanders.
That still leaves room for possible Warren-Biden clashes. They've traded barbs lately without naming each other, as Biden railed about "elitism" after Warren had decried candidates running consultant-driven campaigns with ideas that weren't ambitious enough.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa; Sara Burnett in Chicago and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Calif. contributed to this report.