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2020 watch: Will impeachment trial change the primary?

Steve Peoples
Associated Press

Des Moines, Iowa — Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:

The narrative

With voting to begin in just two weeks, the sprint to the Iowa caucuses is decidedly complicated by the beginning of President Donald Trump’s historic impeachment trial in the Senate. The proceedings will prevent the two leading progressive candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, from spending as much time in the kickoff caucus state as they’d like, giving an advantage to moderate rivals Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. At the same time, the progressive movement is struggling to project a united front after a dispute over gender threatened to splinter the left. Taken together, the evolving dynamics add yet another layer of uncertainty to the already unsettled Democratic primary fight at a critical moment.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The big questions

►How excited are black voters about these Democrats?

The week opens with Martin Luther King Jr. Day – and a spotlight on the Democratic Party’s critical relationship with African American voters. The party’s best-known black candidates, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have already been knocked out the race. On paper, Joe Biden has maintained a dominant advantage over the rest of the field among black voters, but the ultimate Democratic nominee will not only need to win black voters in the primary, he or she will need to convince them to turn out in greater numbers in 2020 than they did in 2016. We’ll be talking to plenty of African American leaders and watching how the candidates are received at multiple forums dedicated to King and racial justice across various states, including Iowa and South Carolina.

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Will impeachment change the primary?

History is being written in Washington this week as the Senate begins Trump’s impeachment trial on Tuesday. While the proceedings are not expected to lead to the Republican president’s removal, they could play a major role in the first voting contest of the Democratic Party’s primary season. Four Senate Democrats running for president, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Sanders and Warren, are required to attend each day of the trial, which will severely limit their ability to rally supporters on the ground in Iowa. Will it hurt them? Will it ultimately help Biden and Buttigieg? And stepping back, will it diminish the importance of Iowa’s Feb. 3 caucuses?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Can Trump peel off any Bernie bros?

All of a sudden, Republicans, led by Trump, are deeply concerned about whether Sanders is being treated fairly by the Democratic Party. Perpetuating a conservative conspiracy theory, the president claimed last week that establishment Democrats “are rigging the election” against Sanders by forcing him to stay in Washington for the impeachment trial just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The conspiracy ignores the fact that Warren, Klobuchar and Bennet are in the same position as Sanders. It’s laughable to think Trump and GOP leaders are genuinely concerned about Sanders, but it’s not quite so crazy to imagine some disaffected Sanders supporters ultimately supporting Trump this fall – or sitting out the election altogether – if Sanders doesn’t emerge as the Democratic nominee. In a general election that may come down to razor-thin margins in a handful of swing states, it wouldn’t take many angry Sanders supporters to make a real impact.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

►Will the unity illusion hold?

Less than a week has passed since the progressive alliance between Warren and Sanders was shattered with a “he said, she said” dispute tinged with sexism. The liberal leaders have avoided any further public criticism of each other since the Jan. 14 debate, but tensions remain, particularly among their most passionate supporters. Democrats cannot afford any permanent divisions in their energized left wing if they hope to defeat Trump in the fall. And rank-and-file primary voters have little appetite for Democrat-on-Democrat violence. That makes the Sanders-Warren rift a critical dynamic to watch moving forward.

Does Bernie have a woman problem?

Even before the Warren accusation, it was no secret that many female supporters of Hillary Clinton had been nursing a years-long grudge against Sanders. They blamed him for not working hard enough to help the party’s first female nominee after their divisive 2016 primary battle. Sanders didn’t do himself any favors with those voters on Sunday when he described gender (and age) as a political “problem.” It was an inarticulate answer at best to a dangerous question that Sanders should have been better prepared to answer. Given the decisive role women have played in helping Democrats in the Trump era, Sanders and his party need to do better.

The final thought

Democrats have yet to prove they can assemble a coalition capable of defeating Trump. And on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, the party is facing new questions about its leading candidates’ standing with women, African Americans and far-left activists. It’s risky to assume that Trump’s turbulent presidency alone will be enough to bring everyone together behind the Democratic nominee in November. That makes the delicate discussions over gender and race playing out now all the more dangerous.