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WASHINGTON: Ten US presidential hopefuls have qualified for next month's one-night Democratic debate, the party said Thursday, setting the stage for frontrunner Joe Biden and rising star Elizabeth Warren to battle over who challenges Donald Trump in 2020.

The moderate former vice president and the progressive senator from Massachusetts have yet to appear in the same debate, but that will change as the Democratic Party halves the participants from 20 in the first two rounds of debates to 10 for the September 12 showdown.

The move effectively winnows the sprawling field more than five months before the first votes are cast in the nomination process, which begins next February in Iowa.

Aside from Biden, who leads with 28.9 percent support according to a RealClearPolitics aggregate of recent polls, and Warren (16.5), the lineup includes senators Bernie Sanders (17.1) and Kamala Harris (7.0), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (4.6), entrepreneur Andrew Yang (2.5), Senator Cory Booker (2.4), ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke (2.4), Obama-era cabinetmember Julian Castro (1.1) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (0.9).

Four hopefuls have recently abandoned the race, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who bowed out Wednesday.

For several other low-polling candidates who failed to make the cut, it could mean that the end of their road is near.

For those who did make the stage but are languishing at three percent support or below, the event could be do-or-die: either they catch fire with a breakout moment, or expect them to fade away.

Warren, the leading female candidate, is the only contender to show steady momentum throughout the summer, and she'll seek to harness the enthusiasm that has emerged around her candidacy and convince more voters of her electability.

During her campaign, the 70-year-old Warren has demonstrated a deep understanding of the challenges facing Americans, experts have said.

She performed well in the first two debates, has displayed an ability to go toe-to-toe against the opposition -- including Trump who has repeatedly mocked Warren for claiming Native American ancestry -- and has stood out by unveiling bold, detailed policy proposals.

"Right now she is really checking all of those boxes," Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of American University's Women & Politics Institute, told AFP.

Crowds at Warren's campaign events have swelled, including at a Minnesota rally last week with 12,000 people, and Sunday in Seattle when she drew her largest crowd, an estimated 15,000.

"I just think it's a sign that people are ready for change in Washington," she told reporters after the Seattle rally.

"They understand we've got a government that's working great for the bazillionaires but just not working for them."

 

- 'Pragmatic substitute' -

==========================

 

Warren is occupying the race's liberal lane alongside Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist who like Warren supports universal health care, tuition-free public college and a $15 minimum hourly wage.

September's debate, hosted by ABC, has the potential for fireworks between the two as they battle for the same set of progressive voters.

But Fischer Martin predicts they will remain civil while highlighting their differences.

"There's really not a reason for her to go after Bernie Sanders at this point," she said. "When you do that, you can risk alienating the other candidate's supporters."

Instead she has been "bombarding everybody" with her various policy plans, presenting herself as serious on the issues and a "more pragmatic substitute" to Sanders, said Robert Boatright, political science department chair at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Warren also would likely think twice about clashing with Biden, he said, adding: "She seems to have done quite well in the debates" without going on the attack.

Meanwhile, Biden, who maintains a solid lead despite a rocky few months marred by gaffes, seeks to burnish his appeal as the most electable challenger, a candidate who can draw Republicans and independents who voted for Trump but may have soured on the president.

"Many Democrats are anxious, as the first criteria in selecting a candidate is to find somebody who can beat Donald Trump, part of which is holding up Joe Biden and holding back Elizabeth Warren," said Christopher Arterton, a political management professor at George Washington University.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Press), 2019