AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Democratic presidential candidates are debating again tonight. And, this time, it's going to be different. The DNC made it harder to get into the debate. Only half of the field qualified this time. So instead of two nights, there is just one. And that means all of the top candidates are finally on the same stage together.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Senator Cory Booker.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Congressman O'Rourke.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Senator Kamala Harris.
DON LEMON: Senator Warren, please respond.
JAKE TAPPER: Senator Klobuchar?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, Vice President Biden.
TAPPER: Mr. Yang, I want to bring you in. You said...
I want to bring in Mayor Buttigieg.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Secretary Julian Castro.
TAPPER: And, Senator Sanders, let's start with you.
CHANG: So we wanted to take a look at the arguments we're likely going to be hearing tonight among the Democratic contenders. And to do that, we're joined now by NPR's Asma Khalid and Scott Detrow, who are now in Houston, where the debate is being held.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hello.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: All right, Scott. Let's start with you. Heading into this debate, what do you think is the biggest disagreement the candidates are having? Where are we going to see some fireworks, you think?
DETROW: You know, I think there are going to be a whole range of policy disagreements tonight. But, probably, the biggest disagreement among the candidates is going to be a political one, and that's about this notion of electability. Electability - this term that we talk about, you talk about, voters talk about, most importantly - more. Over and over again, voters say that they want a nominee who can beat Donald Trump. And that's what they care about. It's a murky thing. It's a subjective thing. But Joe Biden's campaign has embraced this idea in campaigns, saying that he is the best person positioned to beat Trump. And as that has continued and as Biden has remained in the lead in the polls, there has been increased frustration from other candidates who are pushing back on this idea.
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JULIAN CASTRO: We're not going to win by just trying to be safe. We're going to win by being bold.
CORY BOOKER: We can't make the mistake that says, oh, we've got to play it safe. This election is just about finding somebody who can beat Donald Trump.
ELIZABETH WARREN: And people are scared. But we can't choose a candidate we don't believe in because we're scared.
DETROW: And that was Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren there. Biden's campaign argues that this is not the only reason that people are gravitating towards Joe Biden right now. It's his long track record as vice president. But I'll say this is something that Asma and I hear from voters all the time when they talk about why they're currently supporting or thinking of supporting Joe Biden.
CHANG: One thing we're going to be watching tonight - there's going to be a lot of progressives onstage - not as many of the more centrist moderates. But we've been hearing the progressives push this idea of "Medicare for All" for months now. So with tonight's mix of candidates onstage, what do we expect the health care conversation to sound like, Asma?
KHALID: Even amongst the so-called progressives, there's a lot of nuance about what a Medicare for All plan should look like. There's not unanimous agreement about that definition, about that idea. I want you to take a listen to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Here he was over the weekend at the New Hampshire State Convention.
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PETE BUTTIGIEG: We ought to unify Americans around these solutions, or nothing will actually get done. That's why my health care vision is Medicare for All who want it.
KHALID: Ailsa, did you get that? It's Medicare for All who want it.
CHANG: Want it (laughter).
KHALID: So what he's saying is that, you know, he is not advocating for an extreme elimination of all private insurance.
KHALID: There would be still choice left in his system. You know, when you're talking about a true Medicare for All plan that would eliminate private insurance, really, the only two candidates onstage tonight who have explicitly endorsed such a plan are Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
CHANG: We also expect racial justice to be a big topic for Democratic voters. And, I mean, maybe one of the biggest moments in the last debate was when Kamala Harris confronted Joe Biden over busing desegregation. That was just a few months ago. Has the conversation on racial issues changed any?
DETROW: This is an area where a lot of the candidates are moving in the same direction. And even there - if there's a difference of degrees, they all basically want to do a lot of the same things.
California Senator Kamala Harris is one of the most recent candidates to come out with a plan. And hers included a lot of ideas that you've seen in many other plans, things like doing away with mandatory minimum sentences, doing away with private prisons, putting in place a national use-of-force standard for police.
This is, politically, also another area where candidates have - and likely will again this evening - gone after Biden for his long career. He took a lead role in the tough-on-crime trends of the '90s. That's something that many Democratic voters, especially younger voters - younger black voters, in particular - think the party was just dead wrong on two decades ago. Biden has defended a lot of those votes, particularly pointing to the assault weapons ban that was part of that 1994 crime bill.
CHANG: Well, another way Biden has been defending himself is he says his foreign policy credentials give him this huge advantage over the other candidates. But I understand there's a lot of disagreement about his record, right? So do you expect to hear about that tonight, Asma?
KHALID: Ailsa, I would anticipate we will hear somewhat about that. But, you know, the criticism on Biden's record is that even though he has a lot of experience, his critics will say that his judgment has been off on some key decisions, such as the Iraq War. Recently, in an interview with us on the NPR Politics Podcast, he defended his vote to authorize the war. He said that President Bush just needed that authorization as sort of - some sort of diplomatic leverage. Here's what he said.
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JOE BIDEN: Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.
KHALID: And, Ailsa, that's not exactly true, you know? It actually took him about two years to publicly admit that that vote was a mistake. Biden made nearly the same argument in the last debate. But now one of his campaign advisers has said that he misspoke, so I am very curious to see how he will defend that record tonight.
CHANG: That's NPR's Scott Detrow and Asma Khalid.
KHALID: You're welcome.
DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.