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Will Joe Biden join the presidential race? That’s been a lingering question for weeks, especially going into the first Democratic debate. Political director Lisa Desjardins talks with Judy Woodruff about the man who’s not going to be on the debate stage, as well as what to expect from the five candidates who will be in Las Vegas.
We will hear a great deal from the five Democrats vying to be president tonight, as they take to the debate stage for the first time in this campaign.
But hovering over them are questions about a potential sixth candidate, Vice President Joe Biden.
Some Democrats are getting impatient and say it's time for him to decide whether or not he's going to run.
The NewsHour's political director, Lisa Desjardins, reports from Las Vegas on the Biden factor.
The man not on stage tonight…
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN I'm Joe Biden. I'm Jill's husband.
… has had plenty to stay this month. Going off script at a Hispanic heritage event, he took aim at Donald Trump and Republicans on immigration.
Trump and that stuff you're hearing on the other team, and not just — this isn't about Democrat/Republican. It's about a sick message.
With union workers on Labor Day, he went after tax breaks for the rich.
Why in God's name should a man or woman working in a steel mill making $50,000 a year pay at a higher rate than someone who makes tens of millions of dollars on Wall Street?
And at a solar convention, it was climate.
Make no mistake about it, folks, climate change is caused by human endeavors, and it's an existential threat. What's at stake is whether we have a future at all.
The topics and tone of a candidate, they are from a man on pause. Biden, who has been mourning the death of his son Beau, told "The Late Show"'s Stephen Colbert he's not sure he has the heart to run for the White House again.
I would be lying if I said that I knew I was there.
As Biden carefully considers whether to enter the race, Democratic voters and funders will be focused on the debate stage here in Las Vegas tonight and the declared candidates, and some political experts say Biden's window to jump in the race may be finite.
HILARY ROSEN, Democratic Strategist:
He doesn't have a long time. But he's got several weeks more.
Hilary Rosen is a Democratic strategist.
There are some filing deadlines I think coming up next month that he has to deal with. But we're going to have a debate a month for the next six months. He's got to get in.
What would it mean if Biden gets in? Here's a look at how those on stage tonight did in the latest national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll without Biden. It's a race between Clinton and Sanders.
But, hypothetically, beam Biden into the mix, and he would get nearly one in five Democratic votes, taking some from Sanders, but the biggest chunk would come from camp Clinton. At the same time, Clinton faces dropping favorability ratings, meaning a debate without Biden is a key opportunity for her.
If Hillary does really, really well and Democrats end up rallying around her, you know, that might take some of the air out of the Biden balloon. And so there's a lot of pressure on Hillary.
Things can change in a heartbeat.
Adding to the pressure on the race is the super PAC Draft Biden.
Six weeks after the election, my whole world was altered forever.
The group created this emotional ad stressing how Biden coped with the death of his wife, daughter and now son. Biden publicly asked the group not to run it, and they complied. It's part of the warm sentiment and high favorabilities around Biden right now, but that could change, warns Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau.
RODELL MOLLINEAU, Democratic Strategist:
Primary voters love what they can't have. There's always the what if. What if this person were to run or this person were to run? And I think you're getting that right now with Vice President Biden. I think that it's a lot different, though, once you become a declared candidate.
Mollineau points to Biden's work on the 1994 crime bill, now criticized as propelling overincarceration. In addition, Biden supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, unpopular with many Democrats and opposed by Clinton and Sanders.
And, finally, with 36 years in the Senate, Biden is an insider in a year of the outsider. The vice president has indicated it all comes down to a personal decision, but some think tonight's debate might matter.
Should Vice President Biden or his consultants see a debate where none of the candidates are truly resonating with the voters or the audience, that might be something that factors into his decision as to whether or not he runs.
And Lisa joins us now with the latest from the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, the site of tonight's debate.
So, Vice President Biden is not there. You have been talking to a lot of people. What are they saying about the two front-runners and what they need to do tonight? What is their strategy, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?
I think that's right.
Most people are looking for that matchup tonight in particular. Let's start with Bernie Sanders. We know from his campaign — I just talked to his campaign spokeswoman, Simone Sanders, no relation. And she says that he will not go on the attack, that he's always stayed positive.
However, Judy, it's just what that means, because they are saying that he will have to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton. Expect him in particular to talk about trade, and that is going to come back to that interview that you had with Hillary Clinton in which she announced that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Bernie Sanders, we expect, to talk about his consistency, point out that this is a relatively new position for Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton, her campaign is saying they want her to stay on message and also stay positive, but same thing here, Judy. Expect her to differentiate herself, especially on the issue of guns.
Now, we can talk about the debate stage, but the truth is, Judy, the fight between these two Democrats has already started in Las Vegas over unions. Here, you see Hillary Clinton yesterday speaking at a protest of culinary workers. That is the largest union in Nevada, and it's a group that has not endorsed yet.
They endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Hillary Clinton certainly wants them this time, and she showed that yesterday. It is a very tense fight over unions. Expect a lot of talk about workers tonight in the debate.
Of course, being a huge part of the Democratic base, the labor unions.
Let's talk about some of the other candidates on the stage. We haven't heard a great deal, Lisa, about the former governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley. He's been trying to get his voice heard. But it's been tough in this campaign. What are we looking for from him?
That's right. He may be the one with the most at stake tonight, Judy.
Martin O'Malley in some polls is under 1 percent, just barely above zero. And that's something that I don't think anyone expected a few months ago. He has a lengthy resume. He's personable. He's a good campaigner, but he just hasn't taken hold. Judy, tonight, we expect, if anyone goes on the attack, it will be Martin O'Malley. He will try the look as though he is more of a progressive than Hillary Clinton.
And, as I say, the stakes are very high, Judy, so high that, in fact, if he doesn't improve in the polling, Judy, he may not make future debates because of a 1 percent or higher cutoff established by different networks.
And then, Lisa, the other two on the stage are candidates we frankly hear even less about. And that's the former Senator from Virginia Jim Webb and the former Senator and Governor of the state of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee.
What are their campaigns saying about what they need to do tonight?
Both of them are stressing the homespun nature of their campaigns. Part of that is, they are more low-funded campaigns. They say they're proud of that. For example, with Jim Webb, talking to his folks, we know that those who will be speaking for Mr. Webb here in the spin room are just friends of his, who — some of them friends of his through the military and his experience there, but people who have never been in a spin room before.
I think those two men in a way have nothing to lose, and so we should expect to see if one of them has an unexpectedly strong moment tonight. I think one thing overall for all of these candidates is, this debate is especially important because it's the first in a long season. And if our viewers will remember, in 2008, by this point, there were already 13 debates.
Can you imagine? It's sort of hard to understand, but this being the first at this start of the cycle, it's very important.
Just very quickly, Lisa, difference between a Republican debate and a Democratic debate? You have covered both of them now. What does it look like? What does it feel like?
It is a vast difference, Judy.
I think, tonight, we think, because there are fewer candidates, and, to be honest, because their disagreements are a bit more nuanced, we think we might have a more serious policy debate. A lot of us love those, and hopefully we will get one tonight. We will see.
Lisa Desjardins, our political director, I know you will be there and we will be talking to you tomorrow all about it.
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