AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The final presidential primary debate of 2019 is underway. It's the smallest number of Democratic candidates to appear on a stage together since these debates began over the summer. That's due to a gradually shrinking field and also increasingly stringent qualifying criteria set by the Democratic National Committee. The debate is in Los Angeles. Joining us from NPR West in Culver City is NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow.
Scott, this debate comes a day after the House voted to impeach President Trump. How is that going to factor into the conversation with these candidates?
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: You know, I'm sure it'll be the first few questions, just like it was at the last debate. But impeachment really has not been much of a factor in the race. Every candidate on the stage will be on the same page here, most importantly the senators who will be jurors soon. Tulsi Gabbard is not on the stage. She got a lot of attention last night for voting present, saying impeachment is needlessly divisive. But overall, over the last few months, this is not something the candidates have touched much on, though the Biden campaign has been running ads tied to it in Iowa, tying it to Joe Biden's broader campaign themes of restoring norms and normalcy to the presidency. I think impeachment really affects the race next month or whenever the Senate trial is, when Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other Senate candidates have to leave the campaign trail.
CORNISH: The biggest change in the race since last debate is probably South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg leading in the polls in Iowa, also seeing a surge in New Hampshire. What sort of dynamic might that create?
DETROW: You know, he was on the upswing last month. And we all really expected the other candidates to aim their fire on him in November, but it didn't happen. But two things have happened since then. The race has gotten a little more contentious. Notably, Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have had several back-and-forths on policy and on transparency, calling on each other to list details about past work - Elizabeth Warren's legal work for private clients, Pete Buttigieg's work in consulting. And both have done that. And also, Buttigieg has risen in the polls. He leads the polls in Iowa. He's surging in some New Hampshire polls as well, so I think we'll watch that dynamic.
One thing that several candidates have mentioned is that they increasingly see no upside in attacking Joe Biden in these stages. And they point out the candidates who have done that before - Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and Cory Booker - none of them are on the debate stage tonight.
CORNISH: Right. Also, Senator Kamala Harris dropped out. What are the candidates saying about those criteria and the impact that they're having on the field?
DETROW: Yeah. There was a lot of conversation after Harris was out of the race that this could be an entirely white debate stage. And that was before Andrew Yang had qualified for the debate, which he did. He'll be the only non-white candidate on the stage. And there was pressure from the Booker and Castro campaigns and other corners to loosen these debate requirements going forward. They're based on polling and fundraising. The DNC has made clear it's not going to do that. It'll keep those types of requirements in place for the next few debates before the voting and caucusing actually begins. And maybe after Iowa, New Hampshire and other states have their say, the field will just be smaller on its own.
CORNISH: So six weeks out from Iowa, what are you watching for as it gets closer to votes being cast?
DETROW: I think the biggest thing that a lot of the campaigns point to is so many polls show that a lot of Democratic voters and caucus-goers could still change their minds. They're not entirely set on their choice. So does that number start to narrow at any point? And if it does, does that solidify where the field is now, or does it shake things up? I mean, this race has been defined by a really overall static picture all along - Joe Biden on top of almost all polls, Bernie Sanders close behind him and then Warren and Buttigieg going up and down, but after them, just, like, a massive gap between them and the other candidates. Been a very stable year - 2020 will not be a stable year because we know, among anything else, it'll end with a nominee.
CORNISH: That's NPR's political correspondent Scott Detrow.
Thanks so much.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.