7 questions heading into 10-candidate Democratic debate

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Signage is erected for the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

WASHINGTON (AP) — And then there were 10.

The Democratic Party’s strongest presidential contenders — according to polls and fundraising, at least — meet on the same debate stage for the first time Thursday night.Full Coverage: Election 2020

The lineup in Houston will be different but the dynamic familiar: Former Vice President Joe Biden will fight to preserve his front-runner status as a crowded stage of lower-tier candidates scrap for attention and momentum any way they can. Opportunities and risks abound for a race that is far from settled.

Seven big questions heading into the third Democratic debate, to be carried on ABC:

HOW WILL INTERNAL DIVISIONS PLAY OUT WITH A COMPLETELY NEW GROUP?

These 10 have never shared the stage before. Biden and Elizabeth Warren will stand shoulder to shoulder for the first time and may attract much of the pre-event hype, but any number of significant friction points could emerge in a group that highlights the extraordinary diversity of the 2020 class. There will be three women on stage, four racial minorities, one gay man and an age gap that spans four decades. Don’t forget about the ideological divide that features a democratic socialist on one side and an establishment-backed moderate on the other. There will almost certainly be fireworks on multiple fronts, especially with the second-tier candidates desperate for a breakout moment.

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WHERE HAVE ALL THE MODERATES GONE?

This moment marks a dramatic contraction of the Democratic Party’s 2020 class of candidates, which has essentially been cut in half — for now, at least. Suddenly gone are several outspoken moderate voices — former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan — who were not shy in previous debates about warning the party against nominating someone too far to the left. Their absence leaves Biden with far fewer allies in his push for pragmatism over ideological purity. And it may make it easier for progressive policy besties Bernie Sanders and Warren to continue pulling the party leftward on health care, taxes, immigration and education. President Donald Trump is only too happy to let Democrats showcase their plans to transform America.

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HOW FRAGILE IS THE FRONT-RUNNER?

Biden holds a significant lead over the crowded field, despite signs of soft support, a weak organization and repeated missteps. His performance on Thursday will either create more anxiety for his supporters or strengthen his claim on the mantle of undisputed front-runner. What’s clear is that Biden will be at the center of the action. He plans to be aggressive if provoked, and his opponents are prepared to test him. Kamala Harris wounded Biden in a testy exchange over race in June, but Biden effectively deflected attacks in last month’s meeting. Which Biden will show up?

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