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The top Democratic candidates for president will take the debate stage together on Thursday night, and each member of the diverse field is trying to find a way to stand out of the pack.

Among them, Joe Biden hunkered down for mock debates, Bernie Sanders has no interest in practice sessions and entrepreneur Andrew Yang was planning on trying to stay loose by playing some basketball.

Here’s a look at how they and the other seven candidates who will take the stage are preparing for the ABC-sponsored face off in Houston, the third debate among the Democratic hopefuls.

Biden: Ready to defend

While the former vice president will share the stage for the first time with strong contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden’s advisers say he’s more likely to face direct attacks from other candidates who are seeking to make a splash. Biden has been studying his rivals’ records and is ready to defend his.

“Regardless of who is or isn’t attacking Joe Biden, Biden is focused on running his race,” one adviser said.

Nonetheless, some of his strategies are clearly geared toward contrasting his record and plans from sweeping changes proposed by challengers on the left — Warren and Bernie Sanders. Biden intends to stress there’s a difference between rhetoric and results. “Running for president is about making people’s lives better, and that only happens if the change proposed becomes reality,” the adviser said.

Warren: Won’t shoot first

Aides say she has no plans to go after Biden and wants to use the nationally televised forum to continue to introduce herself to voters, but they note that Warren expects to be asked about their past disagreements. She’ll defend herself if attacked, but has no plans to fire first, the aides said.

Biden, a longtime former Delaware senator, and Warren, a consumer advocate and former bankruptcy lawyer, have clashed at times over the years, notably on the issue of credit cards and their role in driving some holders into debt. Many banks and credit card companies are headquartered in Delaware, and Biden was a reliable advocate for those firms on Capitol Hill.

If needed, Warren will stress differences between her and the other candidates, said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is pro-Warren.

“If Biden paints a picture of a conservative world and she paints a progressive one, it’s not a punch, but there is a clear contrast,” Green said.

Sanders: Someone has his back

His advisers acknowledge the first on-stage match-up of Biden and Warren will get much of the focus — Sanders was next to Biden for the first debate and next to pal Warren in the second — but he’ll work to draw attention to his new policy proposals.

Sanders, who doesn’t do mock debates to prepare, is ready for the more moderate candidates to go on the attack against him.

“You saw in the second debate, some people tried to come at him,” campaign manager Faiz Shakir said. “He was prepared and he was ready.”

He and fellow progressive Warren had each other’s backs in the last debate, and Shakir said he expects that will be the case again.

“The situation is still the same as last time in that you have in Elizabeth Warren, someone who’s been a good ally with Bernie on a lot of these key fights,” Shakir said.

Harris: Trump ‘hatred’

She made a splash in the first debate, sponsored by NBC, with a pointed attack on Biden, but Harris is planning to target President Donald Trump in the third debate.

Harris will “focus on bringing the country together by defeating him and unifying Americans around solutions to our common challenges,” said campaign spokesman Ian Sams. “She’ll make the connection between his hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country.”

She will also draw attention to issues that impact a broad part of the electorate, like gun violence, living costs and healthcare, Sams said.

Buttigieg: Finding balance

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, headed down to Houston for debate preparation on Tuesday, and is aiming to strike a delicate balance: Scoring points against his opponents without veering into personal attacks.

Buttigieg said he wasn’t interested in a “canned, made-for-TV moment in order to, you know, he the talk of the town that night.”

He’s looking for ways to differentiate himself from his opponents on policy issues rather than perceived flaws in their background or record. He road-tested that approach over the past week with mild critiques of Sanders on economic policies he says are unrealistic.

“For the Houston debate, we have to draw some sharper contrasts for people to show why Mayor Pete has such broad-based appeal, how he’s different from some of the other candidates on the stage,” said Jess O’Connell, a senior Buttigieg adviser.

Yang: The jam

The entrepreneur was working on getting in the right headspace by playing a game of basketball the day before the Houston debate.

Yang’s risen in the polls since the first faceoff in June, and his campaign is readying him to expect fire from other candidates.

“We’d like the debate to be about issues and problems actually facing America and less of a reality TV show,” a senior campaign official told NBC News. “One of the worst things you see candidates do is try to get their viral attack line in.”

But, the official said, Yang will be doing something “big” and “unprecedented” on debate night, declining to provide specific details.

Booker: Unity pitch

The New Jersey senator — who’s been known to do pushups and bicep curls during debate preps —is looking at the forum as an opportunity to lay out his vision, with an emphasis on unity, according to a campaign aide.

“The idea of uniting Americans together is something that is certainly what we want to convey on the debate stage,” the aide told NBC News.

He’s also working on adapting to the time constraints by making sure he is “being concise but direct.”

O’Rourke: No stunts, no swears

Returning to his home state of Texas, the former congressman is “not going to engage in stunts and one-liners, or indulge attempts by the moderators to pit candidates against each other for the benefit of good TV,” a campaign spokesman said. “The seriousness of the moment demands more than that.”

The spokesman said O’Rourke “will be communicating the same message he’s been bringing to the trail the last few weeks,” including calling out Trump and offering solutions on gun violence.

But O’Rourke, who’s drawn attention on social media for cursing on the campaign trail, will have to be family friendly. The Democratic National Committee sent a letter at ABC’s request to candidates this week asking them to refrain from swearing on stage, DNC communications director Xochi Hinojosa confirmed to NBC News.

Castro: Watching the clock

The other Texan in race arrived in Houston with his team on Sunday, and is prepping the same way he did for the first two debates — with mock debates and practice on explaining his policies within the allotted time limits.

While the rules say candidates will have more time to speak than in the first two debates, Castro’s hoping the limit will apply equally to all 10 candidates. In the last debate, he had about 10 and a half minutes of speaking time compared with Biden’s 20.

“I hope the folks at ABC are determining how they’re going to make sure that all of the candidates that are on that stage that met the threshold are able to get roughly equal time. If they don’t do that, that is a failure,” Castro told reporters this week.

Klobuchar: Pragmatic

The Minnesota senator has been lagging in the polls, and her campaign is hoping her message of policy pragmatism and Democratic unity will shine through in her performance Thursday.

That approach was on full display this past weekend in New Hampshire, where Klobuchar pushed an “optimistic economic and justice agenda” to a fired-up room of Democrats.

Mike Memoli, Marianna Sotomayor, Ali Vitali, Benjamin Pu, Beth Fouhy, Shaquille Brewster, Gary Grumbach , Deepa Shivaram, Vaughn Hillyard, Josh Lederman, Priscilla Thompson, Julia Jester, Garrett Haake, Maura Barrett, Amanda Golden and Alex Seitz-Wald contributed.

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Elizabeth Warren edges out Joe Biden in Des Moines Register Iowa poll



Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa, according to a new Des Moines Register/CNN poll of the crucial state.

The poll out Saturday night found Warren was the top choice for the Democratic nomination with 22 percent support among likely caucus-goers, while Biden had the support of 20 percent of respondents. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fell to third with 11 percent.

The poll was conducted of 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers from Sept. 14-18. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The last Register/CNN poll, in June, had Biden leading with 24 percent and Warren in the third spot at 15 percent, slightly behind Bernie Sanders, who came in second with 16 percent support.

While there have been several other recent polls of the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Des Moines-based pollster Ann Selzer, is widely considered to be the most accurate, so its Saturday night releases have become must-watch events for Iowa politicos.

The poll was released after the entire 2020 Democratic presidential field gathered in Des Moines Saturday for the annual Steak Fry, a fundraising event hosted by the local Democratic Party club.

Warren surged 7 points in the poll since the June survey, while Biden lost a bit of ground, putting them neck-and-neck inside the poll’s margin of error.

Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, both slipped significantly, down 5 and 6 percentage points, respectively, leaving Buttigieg at 9 percent, down from 15.

The rest of the field, meanwhile, is mired in the single digits.

California Sen. Kamala Harris held steady at 6 percent, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gained a couple of points to land at 3 percent, while coming at 2 percent were Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, billionaire Tom Steyer, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Everyone else was at 1 percent or below.

Still, just one-in-five likely Democratic caucus-goers said they had already made up their minds so the race remains fluid. Almost two-thirds said they were open to being convinced to support someone else.

“The data in this poll seem to suggest the field is narrowing, but my sense is there’s still opportunity aplenty,” Selzer told the Register. “The leaders aren’t all that strong. The universe is not locked in.”

But the data is unquestionably good news for Warren, who is now both the best-liked candidate in the field (75 percent view her favorably) and the candidate being considered by the most likely caucus-goers (71 percent).

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Voters go ‘center-left’ on issues, but not on candidates



WASHINGTON – When it comes to issues and issue agendas, there is good news and bad news for Democrats in 2020 in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

On the good news side of the ledger, there some key issues where voters seem supportive of left-leaning ideas and approaches. The bad news, a leftward-lean does not mean a leftward rush. If Democratic candidates push too hard in the primaries they may find themselves with problems in the general election.

The issue agreements and differences with registered voters and Democratic primary voters are eye-opening and, in some cases, surprising.

One number that jumps out of the data, 58 percent of registered voters in the survey say they support “providing free tuition at state colleges and universities.” That’s lower than the 81 percent of Democratic primary voters who support the idea and there’s a lot of wiggle room in how respondents may have interpreted the question (would it be means-tested?), but it’s still a majority.

And there are a series of issues like that one, where Democrats seem to have registered voters in their corner on topics ranging from immigration and student debt to health care and the environment.

For instance, 67 percent of registered voters and 89 percent of Democratic primary voters say they favor allowing young adults who were brought illegally to this country to stay here to attend college. On student debt, 64 percent of registered voters and 82 percent of Democratic primary voters favor forgiving student loans after someone has paid 12.5 percent of their income every year for 15 years.

The two groups are also in agreement on offering a health insurance “public option” for people younger than 65 who want to buy into it, 67 percent and 78 percent favor that idea respectively. And both registered voters and Democratic primary voters favor “shifting the country to 100 percent renewable energy and stopping the use of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power by the year 2030” – 52 percent and 81 percent support that idea.

Those are numbers that should bring smiles to the faces of Democrats. They show a lot of broad support on some major issues that Democrats say they favor and seem to suggest Democrats are in a good spot to win voters in 2020.

For the record, the data also show that both registered voters and Democratic primary voters oppose building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and oppose eliminating the Affordable Care Act.

But there is another set of numbers in the poll that show the challenges Democrats could face on these same issues if their nominee heads down a path that goes a little further to the left.

On immigration, 64 percent of Democratic primary voters want to give undocumented immigrants government health care, only 36 percent of registered voters want that. When it comes to student debt, 60 percent of Democratic primary voters say they favor immediately canceling and forgiving all current student loan debt, but only 41 percent of registered voters support that idea.

A solid 63 percent of Democratic primary voters back a “Medicare for all” single-payer health care system “in which private health insurance would be eliminated” – only 41 percent of registered voters agree. And while 58 percent of Democratic primary voters support an end to the practice of “fracking” for oil and gas production, only 41 percent of registered voters feel the same way.

Those are some wide gaps and the splits show that winning general election support is not just about talking about the right issues (clean energy, fixing student debt), it’s about talking about them in the right way.

The registered voter answers on these questions suggest that the U.S. electorate become a center-left entity in the last few elections, one that is embracing more liberal action on issues such as climate change, health care and college costs.

But these numbers also suggest that the “center-left” is not the “left” and that’s where many Democratic primary voters reside.

The next six to eight months will determine where the Democratic nominee eventually ends up on these issues. And if the party’s nominee moves too far too fast to placate primary voters, he or she may end up standing on uncomfortable ground next November.

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A record share of voters dislike Trump personally, but Democrats face challenges of their own



WASHINGTON — As Democratic candidates compete for the opportunity to take on President Donald Trump, the incumbent they hope to oust is more personally disliked than any of his recent predecessors, and half of voters say they’re very uncomfortable with the idea of his re-election.

But the electorate at large also expresses doubts about some of the progressive policies being backed by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the party’s more moderate frontrunner — Joe Biden — also faces questions about his fitness for the job.

Those are the major findings in the latest release from the September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which also shows that 46 percent of Americans give Trump credit for what they call an improving economy, the highest share of his presidency.

“The Democrats want a referendum on Trump. The GOP wants a comparative choice. And therein lies the rub,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff and his firm Public Opinion Strategies.

Trump approval stable, but a record share dislike him personally

The poll found Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent among registered voters, virtually unchanged from last month and consistent with where former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton stood in public approval at this point in their presidencies.

But it also showed that Trump faces historically poor personal favorability ratings, even among those who approve of the plans he has pursued in office.

A combined 69 percent of registered voters say they don’t like Trump personally, regardless of their feelings about his policy agenda. A record 50 percent say they dislike him personally and dislike his policies, while another 19 percent say that they dislike him but approve of his policies.

Just 29 percent say they like Trump personally, with 25 percent saying they also approve of his policy agenda and 4 percent saying they disapprove.

On this measure, the high degree of personal dislike for Trump differentiates him from his five most recent predecessors. Majorities of voters said they personally liked Obama, Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, even though they might disagree vigorously with their political agenda.

In fact, prior to Trump’s presidency, the highest share of voters saying they disliked the president personally — regardless of their views on his policies — was 42 percent for George W. Bush in March 2006, after Hurricane Katrina.

Voters also have higher levels of discomfort about Trump’s re-election than about his main Democratic rivals.

Half of voters — 49 percent — say they’re very uncomfortable with his 2020 candidacy. That’s compared to 41 percent who say the same for Sanders and 33 percent apiece who say the same for Biden or Warren.

But Trump also continues to benefit from the upside of the polarization of the electorate around him, commanding more enthusiasm than his Democratic competitors as well. A quarter of voters (26 percent) say they’re enthusiastic about him, while fewer say they’re enthusiastic about Warren (17 percent), Sanders (13 percent) and Biden (12 percent.)

Some progressive proposals divide Democrats and the electorate at large

Voters overall are supportive of many of the policy goals being discussed by 2020 Democratic candidates, but there are notable exceptions surrounding “Medicare-for-All,” government health care for undocumented immigrants, and complete student loan forgiveness.

Among Democratic primary voters, 64 percent say they support providing government health care to undocumented immigrants, while just 36 percent of all registered voters agree.

A similar share of Democratic voters — 63 percent — support a single payer “Medicare-for-All” style plan, also backed by Warren and Sanders, that would replace the existing private insurance system. Among voters overall, just 41 percent support that idea.

And six-in-10 Democratic voters also back immediate cancellation and forgiveness of all student debt, a position shared by just 41 percent of all voters. Sanders has unveiled a plan to eliminate all $1.6 trillion in student debt, while Warren has proposed the cancellation of up to $50,000 in student debt per person, based on household income.

More moderate Democratic positions on the issues of health care and student loan forgiveness, however, have the backing of wide majorities of both Democratic voters and the general electorate.

Two-thirds of all voters — 67 percent — and 78 percent of Democrats back an optional program that would allow those under 65 to buy into Medicare just like one can currently buy in to private insurance.

A similar share of all voters — 64 percent — support a plan to forgive student debt for those who have paid 12.5% of their income every year for 15 years.

And 58 percent of all voters support a measure to provide free tuition at state colleges and universities.

While some of the most progressive Democratic proposals lack majority support, the poll also found that two of Trump’s signature plans are similarly unpopular with the voting public.

Just 43 percent of all voters support the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. And exactly the same share back the elimination of the Affordable Care Act.

Voters raise concerns about Trump and Biden’s fitness for the presidency

While Biden may be the Democratic Party’s current standard-bearer for more moderate — and popular — policy proposals, a significant share of Americans in the poll say they’re losing confidence in his ability to lead the country.

A third of voters overall — 36 percent — say they’ve lost confidence in Biden in recent weeks, a time period that included a debate performance described as shaky by his critics. Just eight percent say they’ve grown more confident in him.

The same share — 36 percent — say they have become less confident in recent weeks in Trump’s ability to lead, with 17 percent saying they’ve become more confident.

Those who have lost confidence in the former vice president cited his debate performance, his age and what they say is an over-reliance on Obama’s legacy in making his own case for the job.

“Overall, I like Joe Biden a lot, but I think his performance at the debate gave me the feeling that he might be a little bit past his prime for the position,” said one male Democratic respondent from New York.

A white female Democrat from Illinois put it more bluntly.

“Basically he’s an old white man who I don’t think is going to help our country advance,” she said. “Because our country is not just a bunch of white people anymore.”

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Sept. 13-16. The margin of error for all adults is +/- 3.27 percentage points.

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