WASHINGTON — The opening 2020 Democratic debate double feature is set: Elizabeth Warren vs. the field on the first night, and establishment Joe Biden vs. democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — plus two more of the top-five polling hopefuls and six undercard candidates — in the “Lord of the Flies” closer.
The two-day extravaganza in Miami, which will air live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo June 26-27, represents the first time a national television audience gets to see most of the contestants for the Democratic nomination compete against one another. In this case, it will be in decahedral — or ten-headed — fashion, with the group of 20 candidates who qualified split evenly between the two nights.
But in terms of marquee names, the draw ended up heavily weighted toward the second night — a dynamic that has big implications for both rounds.
In the first heat, Warren — the Massachusetts senator who currently sits third at about 12 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls — is the only one of the five candidates registering above 4 percent routinely in surveys who will be on the stage.
That could be a blessing for her — a chance to dominate — but it could also be a curse if she fails to deliver.
Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist whose firm Park Street Strategies is releasing a poll of Democratic voters on Monday, said that the same pressure is on all the top-tier candidates regardless of which night they drew.
“None of them can afford to falter in a debate,” he said. By the same token, he said, Democratic voters are suffering from candidate overload and are ready for the field to winnow some, which puts an onus on the lesser-knowns to raise their profiles quickly.
“Either they rise to the moment, or their candidacy is done,” he said. “The margin-of-error candidates have no margin for error.”
The other nine competing with Warren, a set that includes two of her fellow senators, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and one former Texas congressman — Beto O’Rourke — who has become more aggressive as he tries to jump-start his campaign, see an opening in avoiding a Biden-Sanders slugfest that also features Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
“This is an opportunity for us,” said an aide to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the challenges facing other candidates. “Every story that comes out of Night Two of the debates is going to be about Biden and how he stacked up against the younger candidates given how he has been covered lately.”
Those younger candidates “are going to struggle to break out of that shadow,” the aide said.
The sleeper candidate on the first night could be Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been praised in Democratic circles for her performance in high-profile congressional hearings and who gets informal advice from a set of longtime party hands familiar with the debate-prep process.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who has made climate change the center of his campaign; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who has earned plaudits from Warren for his immigration proposal; two sitting House members, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio; and one former congressman, John Delaney of Maryland, round out the lineup for the first night.
All eyes will be on Biden and Sanders, who represent the poles of the Democratic primary contest — a centrist who has “evolved” as the party has moved leftward on social policy over his decades in the spotlight, and an iconoclastic progressive who has run as an independent for the House and Senate and recently gave a speech laying out his philosophy of democratic socialism.
They also happen to be the candidates with the highest name-recognition and the leaders in most national polls, as well as the small set of surveys that have been taken in the first four states on the Democratic primary calendar.
Sanders will welcome the opportunity for a direct contrast, as he has been the candidate most open to taking on Biden, the popular former vice president, directly. But he’ll have competition on the stage in the form of Buttigieg and Harris, who will have to weigh whether they are more concerned with introducing themselves to the many voters who still don’t know them or taking the risk of going after the front-runners to cut into their support.
For voters, the stage will offer a full study in comparisons between Biden and the rest of the pack.
“He’s going to have a lot of sharp contrasts, because you’re going to have Bernie Sanders, who is much more progressive than he is, and Pete Buttigieg, who is much younger than he is, and Kamala Harris, who is a woman of color,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who was campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s first bid for president. “There’s just going to be a lot of visual contrasts there between the front-runner and the other candidates.”
That could cut two ways for Biden: It could be that the panoply of Democratic rivals drown one another out or that he comes off as unrepresentative of the party.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” Solis Doyle said. “But for the first time in this race, you’re going to see what the choices are.”
Jeremy Corbyn says Boris Johnson ‘hasn’t won support of our country’ and demands election
Doctors find differences in brains of U.S. diplomats who alleged mystery attacks in Cuba
WASHINGTON — A group of U.S. government workers potentially exposed to unexplained phenomena in Cuba have less white matter in their brains and less connectivity in the areas that control vision and hearing than similar healthy people, doctors have found.
The findings from University of Pennsylvania researchers are the most specific to date about the neurological condition of the U.S. diplomats, spies and their families who reported strange sounds and sensations while serving in Havana between 2016 and 2018.
Yet while doctors found “significant differences” in their brains compared to a control group, they couldn’t say whether they were caused by whatever may have happened in Cuba, nor whether those differences account for the Americans’ symptoms.
Watch Josh Lederman on Andrea Mitchell Reports today for more
The medical findings, revealed Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, come as U.S. national security officials tell NBC News that more than two years into the mystery, the government still has not determined who or what is responsible for what transpired in Havana.
The FBI, enlisted in 2017 to investigate what the U.S. has called “targeted attacks,” paid multiple trips to Havana but has exhausted its leads in the case, individuals briefed on the investigation say. While the investigation hasn’t been formally closed, no external energy source in Cuba has yet been identified that could have caused the injuries, they said. The FBI declined to comment.
Although the Trump administration has not retreated from its assertions that its workers in Cuba were attacked, officials at the FBI, the CIA and the State Department are also examining the possibility that mass psychogenic illness, or psychosomatic symptoms that spread through a community, may be to blame in at least some of the cases, officials said.
The Cuban Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdés-Sosa, the Cuban Neuroscience Center chief who has been investigating the U.S. claims, said there were major “causes for concern” in the study’s methodology, including the makeup of the control group and assertions about brain changes that he said could have resulted from “many factors, including psychological states.”
“The most worrisome aspect is the attempt to link these findings with an unspecified ‘directional phenomenon,'” Valdés-Sosa said. “The research in this area has been cloaked in secrecy, and driven by cold war paranoia.”
Twenty-six Americans who served in Cuba were “medically confirmed” by the State Department to have been affected. The Penn study included most of those workers, their relatives who lived with them and other U.S. workers referred to Penn for potential exposure, bringing the total to 40.
Using a battery of advanced MRIs, researchers created a detailed map of their brains, including the pathways and connections that let parts of the brain communicate with one another. It takes a computer more than 24 hours to process the data and create the maps, officials tell NBC News. The results from all individuals in the Cuba group were combined, then custom software was used to compare those results to a map made from MRIs of 48 individuals of similar age and ethnicity.
Doctors found that in measuring white matter — nerve fibers that form the brain’s communications network — the Cuba patients had a mean volume that was 27 cubic centimeters smaller than the control patients. Overall, they had similar volumes of grey matter — rich with brain cells that process information — but in some regions of the brain, the Cuba patients had more grey matter.
Advanced neuroimaging that tracks how water molecules travel through the brain found decreased connectivity in the networks related to seeing and hearing, which tracks with many of the symptoms reported, but not in the networks that handle higher-level thinking processes. Still, doctors were unable to draw a clear connection between the findings and the patients’ symptoms, which also included problems with balance, sleep and memory.
NBC News Medical Correspondent Dr. John Torres said the small sample size and high sensitivity of the brain scans could have produced results that appear unusual but aren’t clinically significant.
“Even though, as a group, these government personnel have changes to parts of their brains seen on MRI images, those changes cannot be tied directly to what they report happened in Cuba,” Dr. Torres said.
Starting in late 2016, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers in Cuba started reporting strange incidents that the Penn study describes as “potential exposure to uncharacterized directional phenomena” of unknown origins, “manifesting as pressure, vibration or sound.” Some reported ear-piercing sounds in their homes at night that would suddenly disappear when they moved just a few feet away.
The mysterious noises initially led investigators to suspect a sonic weapon, but investigators ruled out the possibility sound waves could have caused the damage. Officials have explored other possibilities such as a microwave or other electromagnetic energy source, as well as potential environmental causes and psychosomatic illness.
Because of how much is still unknown about the brain’s inner workings, it’s difficult to say whether any of those theories could neatly explain the specific changes to brain matter volume and connectivity identified by the MRI study, medical experts said.
The bizarre saga has inflicted significant damage on a U.S.-Cuba relationship that was only beginning to warm in recent years following half a century of enmity.
After declaring that its diplomats had been attacked, the United States pulled most of its workers out of Cuba and warned all Americans not to travel there. Those ties have been further weakened by the Trump administration’s crackdown on Cuba and re-imposition of sanctions and travel restrictions that had been eased during the Obama administration.
In addition to Penn’s study, the National Institutes of Health is conducting its own “brain injury research study” involving the Cuba patients with help from Energy Department supercomputers and national laboratories capable of processing massive amounts of neurological data. The Defense Department has also been engaged to look into technologies that could have been used to harm the Americans, NBC News has reported.
The State Department said it was aware of the new study from Penn doctors and “welcomes the medical community’s discussion on this incredibly complex issue.”
“The department’s top priority remains the safety, security and well-being of its staff,” the State Department said in a statement.
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