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What To Watch For In Sanders And Biden's First 1-On-1 Debate


Tonight, Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden will debate each other one on one. And it's not just the stage that will look pretty empty after having been so crowded for so long. The debate is happening in a TV studio here in Washington with no audience due to coronavirus concerns. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea joins us now with a preview.


DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi, glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Don, neither candidate will have a cheering section tonight, and that's not the only aspect of this campaign that's been affected by the coronavirus, right?

GONYEA: Yeah. I mean, where do I begin? The rallies are done for now at least. And when will people feel comfortable coming back to a rally? So that's an open question. Joe Biden held a virtual event on Friday. Sanders did a virtual fireside chat but so much of a campaign is about human contact. I mean, they're all about bringing people together and creating community and energy. How do you canvas? How do you knock on doors? I mean, the answer is you don't. We have seen both Biden and Sanders give speeches trying to show how they would handle a crisis. So that kind of thing is going on. One other thing about tonight though, Lulu, not only is there no audience but also one of the moderators. Jorge Ramos has withdrawn from the debate. He's self-quarantining because he may have had secondhand exposure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just showing how widespread this is. Joe Biden has been building a lot of momentum, though, as well as a pretty solid delegate lead. Is this debate Bernie Sanders' last stand to stop Biden from running away with the nomination?

GONYEA: It could be. There won't be many more opportunities like a debate. But Biden's lead and his momentum will be extremely tough for Sanders to overcome, even with a lot of primaries to go. Sanders himself is admitting that his broad movement of especially young voters has not been showing up at the polls quite as he expected. Last week, he gave a speech that really made it clear, A, he is not dropping out. But there was also a shift in tone. He's not pushing for Biden and the Democratic Party to address the issues he's been running on and those issues that are so important to young voters. And he says to the future of the party. On Wednesday, he even gave Biden a heads up of how that would go.


BERNIE SANDERS: Joe, what are you going to do to end the absurdity of the United States of America being the only major country on earth where health care is not a human right? Are you really going to veto a Medicare for All bill if it is passed in Congress?

GONYEA: And Sanders also said he will press Biden tonight on housing and college affordability, climate change and all of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about Joe Biden? What is his big challenge tonight?

GONYEA: People will certainly be listening to what he and both candidates say about the coronavirus. But when you look at the debates so far, Biden has mostly gotten by with kind of disappearing in the crowd. That will not be an option tonight. And he'll need to answer Sanders' challenge on young voters and on progressive priorities.

Ultimately Biden may be on the path to the nomination, but he still needs a really strong performance. His performance on the trail has not always been really solid. At times, it's been uneven. He has to start demonstrating that he's steady, that he's in command, that he's ready to be the nominee.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Don Gonyea thank you so much.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.