Seven 2020 US presidential contenders will face on Thursday night in the last Democratic debate of 2019.
The sixth debate comes on the heels of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and is one of the last big chances for lower-tier candidates to prove to voters they can contend with those leading the pack.
Due to stricter requirements, it will be the first debate with less than 10 candidates on the stage, giving both frontrunners and lower-tier candidates a better chance to stand out.
Lower-tier candidates such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Senator Amy Klobucher “are going to try to demonstrate parity and equality with the top tier,” said Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who served under former President Barack Obama.
“It’s a lot harder to stand out on a stage with 13 people when the top tier looks obvious, but now, that it’s a shrunk group – seven people – it is really an opportunity to demonstrate equality and raise their prestige,” added Rubin, who also made a run for a congressional seat in the Maryland Democratic primary in 2018.
Rubin told Al Jazeera the frontrunners – former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – meanwhile, will attempt to “demonstrate why they’re at the top and have been during the process and not get sucked into arguments with the lower-tier that would harm them.”
Also on stage in Los Angeles, California, will be South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire Tom Steyer. Eight other candidates failed to qualify, making Thursday’s event the least diverse of all previous debates.
The event, hosted by PBS Newshour and Politico, is set to begin at 8pm EST (01:00 GMT)
Impeachment will likely be a major topic of debate on Thursday night.
Trump was impeached on Wednesday largely along party lines for obstruction of Congress and abuse of power related to his dealings with Ukraine. Most Democratic contenders have previously said they supported impeachment, labelling Trump “the most corrupt president in history”.
The House impeachment votes set up a likely January trial in the Republican-led Senate, where the three senators on Thursday’s debate stage will act as jurors.
“For these senators who are running, it’s significant because they’re going to become players of the story now, they’re no longer watching it,” Rubin said.
“I’m sure we will have some commentary, [not just] about Donald Trump and why he was impeached, but also about [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and about process and about the Constitution and about what they’re going to do because they’re all going to make statements at a certain point from the Senate floor,” he added.
The trial faces uncertainty, however, as Democrats and Republicans battle over how it should be handled. Democrats want additional witnesses, but McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, has called for swift proceedings instead.
Rubin said senators are likely to focus on the need for a fair trial.
“They are going to say ‘this is our responsibility now to judge this man now and then defeat him at the polls if we don’t convict him and we need to have a fair trial so the American people know what happened,'” he said.
Biden has also been a highly vocal proponent of impeachment.
The impeachment inquiry centred on Trump’s actions on a July phone call with the leader of Ukraine. During the call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden and his businessman son, Hunter, despite there being no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Biden has repeatedly insisted his son “did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
Following the House vote on Wednesday, Biden tweeted: “President Trump abused his power, violated his oath of office, and betrayed our nation. This is a solemn moment for our country. But in the United States of America, no one is above the law – not even the President.”
While the candidates more or less agree on impeachment, a topic the will likely continue to showcase their divisions is healthcare.
Previous debates have pinned the more progressive candidates – Sanders and Warren – who support a Medicare-for-all system against those supporting more centrist platforms, which generally advocate for keeping an updated version of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare).
Also expect organised labour to be brought up as the December debate was almost cancelled due to a labour dispute at Loyola Marymount University, where the debate is being held.
All seven candidates who qualified for the debate said they would boycott the event if the dispute involving dining hall workers was not solved in time.
On Tuesday, officials said a tentative deal had been reached.
Thursday’s debate comes just six weeks before the first ballots will be cast in the Iowa caucuses.
The candidates who failed to qualify for the prime-time event include: Senator Michael Bennet, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Cory Booker, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, former US Representative John Delaney, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and author Marianne Williamson.
The next debate is scheduled for January 14 in Des Moines, Iowa.