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Previewing the PBS NewsHour/POLITICO debate with 3 of its moderators

The PBS NewsHour/POLITICO Democratic debate airs Thursday night from Los Angeles. Three of the debate’s moderators, Judy Woodruff, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor, join John Yang to discuss controversies around the debate qualifications and candidate diversity, how they have prepared for the big event and what recent polling says about the likely Democratic voters who will be watching.

Read the Full Transcript

  • John Yang:

    The "PBS NewsHour"/Politico Democratic debate starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.

    For a preview, let's go out to the debate site and three of tonight's moderators, "NewsHour" anchor Judy Woodruff, senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz, and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.

    Judy, after a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work, the big night is here at last.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is here at last, John.

    We are so glad to be here at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

    We are — and, by the way, there will be a third moderator tonight, Tim Alberta of Politico. He will be joining us, along with Amna and Yamiche.

    But, John, tonight we're — first of all, we're glad it's happening, because there was a labor dispute. We're happy to report that's been resolved.

    We can also say that the rules tonight are pretty straightforward. The candidates will have a 1:15 to answer the questions, about 45 seconds for follow-ups and so on, so pretty typical in terms of how the debate goes.

    But there are some differences tonight.

    Amna, this is the first debate with just seven of the Democratic candidates.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just seven, right?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's still a lot of candidates, but, yes, it is the smallest debate stage so far. That has caused some controversy, as you know, because there were some questions raised by Senator Cory Booker, who is not on the stage tonight, about some of the rules to qualify.

    And — but it is also raising some controversy, because it is the whitest stage to so far, just one person of color, despite a historically diverse candidate field for the Democrats.

    But it's worth noting it's the last chance in this calendar year for the candidates to make their case to some of these early Democratic primary voters. They have a lot at stake tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right, and that one candidate of color being Andrew Yang…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … who is among the seven.

    So, Yamiche, the fact that the debate is here in California, that's a first. We don't usually see these Democratic or Republican primary debates, for that matter, out here. And it has to do with when their primary is.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right, Judy.

    And then the date that California is going to be voting actually got moved up in the process. So, there are a lot of candidates eying California, looking at the delegates.

    I have been talking to some aides close to Joe Biden. He might actually lose Iowa, New Hampshire, which would be a big deal, because he is the former vice president, he had a lot of name recognition.

    But his aides tell me, we're looking for more diverse states. And they're looking at Nevada and California. They see this as a state that represents the future of the Democratic Party. It's one of the states that has a majority people of color living in it.

    So this is a very important state. So, Democrats — and this is why, in some cases, we're now here today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it reminds us that every one of these debates has been important. They have held them in Georgia. They have been in different parts of the country.

    The fact that — I think it says something to the country that the debates are being held everywhere, the Democratic Party very much wanting to speak to American voters.

    Amna, we're not going to share — or Yamiche — what our questions are tonight.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I think it's fair to say that we have spent a good bit of time looking at what the issues are and where the candidates stand on these important issues.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Absolutely.

    I think it's fair to say that tonight will feature a range of topics, just like all the other debate stages have so far. And we know polling shows there are a lot of early voters out there who still haven't made up their minds. And we don't know what issue might be the one that helps them to make up their mind about which one of these candidates they might back when voting starts.

    Remember, those Iowa caucuses are not that far away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They are not, starting February the 3rd.

    And just quickly, Yamiche, in fact, the fact that we don't know what issue is going to affect how the voters make up their minds means that we have had to go through, sift through a lot of suggestions from viewers and followers of these candidates, which is a healthy thing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's a very healthy thing.

    And it also shows that there are a lot of Democratic candidates and — that are still really trying to make their case and introduce themselves to a lot of voters.

    A lot of voters I talk to say, we really want to see something get down to three or four people. We want to try to figure out what the differences are, because they agree on a lot of things, frankly.

    So it was really hard to kind of whittle down that list, but we got that list. Of course, we can't share it, but it is a good list.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fingers crossed.

    Yamiche, Amna, we're so excited that, tonight, the debate is happening.

    To all of you, it's 8:00 Eastern tonight. You can watch it on your local public television station. Check your listings. And, of course, you can follow it online.

    I'm Judy Woodruff. We will see you tonight.

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