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12 Democratic Presidential Contenders To Take The Stage In Latest Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tonight Democrats attend a presidential debate. They continue campaigning even as the House continues an impeachment inquiry against the president they want to replace. President Trump faces pressure for his efforts to investigate Joe Biden, one of the rivals who will be onstage tonight.

So we've called up the hosts of the podcast "Hacks On Tap," Democrat David Axelrod and Republican Mike Murphy. We should tell you that before they were podcast stars, for the younger members of the audience, they also had some experience working with various presidential candidates. Gentlemen, good morning.

DAVID AXELROD: Good morning.

MIKE MURPHY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Democrats and Republicans, of course, including President Obama - a president in David Axelrod's case. Now, I don't think this has happened before - an impeachment inquiry amid a full-blown presidential campaign. Do you feel oriented? Do you feel you understand what's going on?

AXELROD: Listen. I think the whole - I mean, it's profound how different the world is today than a month ago when these same candidates appeared on a stage, you know, not just impeachment but impeachment that involves the - one of the front-runners for the nomination and then the Turkish invasion of Syria and a whole range of issues that weren't on the table in any serious way a month ago. So it is going to - it is going to shape this debate in a way no one could have anticipated a few weeks ago.

INSKEEP: That's David Axelrod. Mike Murphy, what do you think?

MURPHY: No, I think - exactly. The problem for the candidates is impeachment in the Democratic Party is kind of like ice cream; everybody's for it. It's not an edge for one over the other. So they've got to show their bona fides on that, be part of the team - I'm sure President Trump will get a big beating on the stage - but then pivot into some stuff to have their own identity. Of the 12, eight of them are hanging on by a very thin thread. So they're going to be highly caffeinated in trying to stand out.

INSKEEP: Oh - because, of course, they want to stay on that stage as the standards get higher and higher for future debates. I want to ask, though, about this Ukraine story. The president clearly wanted to drag down Joe Biden by raising questions about his son Hunter Biden and in various - trying to get an investigation going in Ukraine.

Even when the president began facing fierce criticism, though, every Republican supporting the president would answer questions about the president by casting aspersions on Joe Biden. There was a lot of questions raised about Joe Biden and Hunter Biden in the media. And now we have Joe Biden no longer quite clearly the front-runner on the Democratic side. Has the president's strategy worked on some level?

AXELROD: You know, what's interesting is if you look at polling, Biden's numbers have not - at least on the top line - eroded. But it has become a subject of, you know, constant inquiry whenever he goes out. And it will be tonight. And I suspect that the story tonight will be how he responds to the Hunter Biden questions. So you know, Trump has succeeded in putting this issue out there, however insidiously. And you know, we'll see how Biden grapples with it tonight. But for Trump I might say, it could be a suicide bombing because in his efforts to destroy Biden, he may have planted the seeds of his own destruction.

INSKEEP: Mike Murphy, can he still confidently rely on Republicans to protect him from being removed from office?

MURPHY: Well, today Republicans have - hold the line. I'm stunned, as a Republican, they have because the president's been so egregious. As the political situation changes, maybe they will. They're afraid of their primary voters.

But a quick point on Biden - this is a tremendous opportunity for him. He is now front and center. He could start the general election through Trump's attacks. He's failed so far to be able to do that. And I think tonight's debate is vital for him to kind of get that reset, or he's going to be watching Elizabeth Warren get even stronger, which has been the story of the race so far.

INSKEEP: Well, David Axelrod pointed out that people who support Joe Biden mostly seem to still be with Joe Biden. But more and more people are getting behind Elizabeth Warren. What do you think she's doing that is building support?

MURPHY: Well...

AXELROD: She's been the most steady performer in this whole race. I mean, she - her story is clear. It's integrated with her biography, her policy. And she's grown as a candidate. She shows all the signs of the kind of candidate who can win. And she's steadily advanced. She's been a winner in each of these debates.

We'll see what happens tonight, though. This is the first time that she's going to be on a stage when she is clearly a front-runner in the race. And we'll see if she takes some incoming from some of the other candidates.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you both, though, about Elizabeth Warren and about the left and the right - the political left and right, generally. I was speaking with some New Hampshire voters the other day. They were Democrats. They want anybody but Donald Trump. But then they started talking about Elizabeth Warren and saying - wait a minute. She seems to be endorsing "Medicare for All" and taking people's private health insurance away - not sure I can go there.

And that raises a question about what is the proper theory of the electorate if you're a Democrat. Are they a bunch of moderates and you can lose by turning them off? Or are they a bunch of people on the left who want to be fired up? What do you think? Mike Murphy, I'll give you the first crack.

MURPHY: Sure, I think ever since Inauguration Day and every special election - the midterms - the country's been punishing the Republicans. So they want to fire Trump. The problem the Democrats have is that they nominate somebody that gives Trump an opportunity to change the topic of the election, a referendum on the opponent.

And there's a lot of risk in Elizabeth Warren. But to date, she has been the most effective Democratic campaigner. So you know, that's being litigated right now. And the primaries are part of figuring it out.

INSKEEP: David Axelrod?

AXELROD: Yeah. I think she understands that Medicare for All is a volatile issue. It's the one issue - health care is the one issue on which she doesn't have her own plan. She has a plan for everything, but this - she's endorsed Bernie Sanders' plan. But she's left room for herself to introduce her own plan. I suspect that when she does, it'll be much more nuanced than the plan that Bernie Sanders has introduced in the Senate.

INSKEEP: Oh, you think she might un-endorse parts of Bernie Sanders' plan or she has a chance to anyway?

AXELROD: I do. There's no other reason for her not to have a plan on health care, which is the one issue on which she has taken a pass.

INSKEEP: David Axelrod and Mike Murphy - "Hacks On Tap." Thanks to both of you, really appreciate it.

MURPHY: Thank you.

AXELROD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.