DES MOINES, Iowa — Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellNASCAR bans display of Confederate flag from events and properties Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Grenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts MORE (D-Calif.) came to Miami to throw haymakers. The young congressman used his few minutes at last week’s debate to take on both the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a chief rival, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE, who also aims to win over younger voters.
The night before, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro engaged in the sharpest exchange of the evening with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), a fellow Texan whose star has dimmed in recent months.
On both nights, some of the most contentious moments came when candidates seeking to break out of the 1-percent pack took aim at those polling just ahead of them, highlighting a fierce and growing competition to own particular constituencies within a fragmented field.
“A number of lower-tier candidates used the debates to try to climb into the top five, both by owning an issue and going after the candidate that is competing most directly for their segment of voters,” said Ben LaBolt, a veteran of former President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
The lesson many observers, and the candidates themselves, took away: While former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE is likely to weather the highest number of slings and arrows, no one is safe from attack.
Those watching the contest with a keen eye say the aim is to carve out a niche within the field — and to kneecap anyone who competes for that niche, whether they are a front-runner or an also-ran.
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“When you’re struggling for attention and there’s a field this crowded, standing out anywhere helps. So you don’t necessarily need to take out a top-tier candidate, because chances are you won’t be able to. But you can still distinguish yourself and position yourself as the top of that tier, the next person ready to break out,” said Mo Elleithee, a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee who now heads the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown.
Swalwell, 38, is angling to corner the millennial market. He urged Biden, 76, to “pass the torch” to the next generation of leaders. Minutes later, he took aim at a rival who has made his own inroads among the youngest cohort, Buttigieg, over a police shooting that left a young black man dead. Swalwell told Buttigieg he should have fired the police chief; Buttigieg stared daggers in cold, silent response.
Castro, another candidate polling near 1 percent, sees O’Rourke as a chief rival, even as O’Rourke’s star has dimmed. Castro challenged O’Rourke’s knowledge of immigration policy, eroding one of the former congressman’s most important issues.
Each time a party’s presidential nomination is up for grabs, candidates who do not begin as front-runners tend to begin by defining their own lanes.
In 1992, former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) made himself the deficit hawk, and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE aimed to win over centrist Democrats. In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) raced to the top of the pack when he cornered anti-war voters. In 2016, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE (R-Texas) staked out a position as the most conservative Republican, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) presented himself as the man in the middle.
This year, with a field so varied, the lanes are more narrow. Castro and O’Rourke are competing to be the prime Texan and the top voice on immigration reform. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee calls on Trump to ‘stay out of Washington state’s business’ Seattle mayor responds to Trump: ‘Go back to your bunker’ Trump warns he will take back Seattle from ‘ugly Anarchists’ if local leaders don’t act MORE (D) has centered his pitch solely on combating climate change. Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSome realistic solutions for income inequality Democratic senators kneel during moment of silence for George Floyd 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests MORE (D-Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.) are competing with Biden for the centrist slot. And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (D-N.Y.) is trying to carve out a niche as the candidate for female voters.
“If you’re occupying the same lane as another candidate, you have to get them out of the way before you’re a contender for the broader field,” said Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of both Obama’s and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s campaigns. “Otherwise, you’re competing for the same votes in a very crowded primary.”
Inslee, one of three straight, white male governors in the race, has been the most aggressive at defining himself as better than his two rivals. He says he has a more progressive record than either Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE (D) or Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE (D) — especially on climate change.
“I’m the guy who banned fracking. There might be another couple of governors on the stage. They’ve done the opposite, they’ve embraced fossil fuels. I don’t believe that’s our future, so I’ll have a different view from the other executives,” Inslee told The Hill last month.
Speaking to voters this weekend in Des Moines, Inslee, who used to run a farm in eastern Washington, joked he is also better at bucking hay than Bullock.
Some Democratic strategists warn that owning a lane may be less effective today than it has been in the past, especially when front-running candidates like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.) seem to cross so many lanes.
“I think the challenge is that there aren’t a lot of single-issue voters in the Democratic primary,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic analytics expert. “Winning traction on a single issue can provide a toe hold for a candidate to draw more attention from potential supporters, and that’s likely the strategy behind that line of thinking.”
Those polling so far behind the front-runners have just one more chance to vault into the top tier, when they meet for debates later this month in Detroit on CNN.
The next debates in the fall will cull the field to just 10 candidates, including only those who reach higher polling and donor thresholds after the Democratic National Committee doubled the criteria for qualification from the June and July events.
It is unlikely that Castro, Swalwell, Inslee or Gillibrand will take out Biden — but their immediate concern is not beating Biden. It is securing a harder-to-obtain spot on the debate stage for the third round.
They can earn that spot by eliminating others eager for a spot on stage, rather than the front-running candidates.
“Draw distinctions where you can, and it doesn’t have to be with a top tier candidate,” Elleithee said. “You don’t see a lot of mid-ranked fighters take the title shot the next time out.”