Biden, Sanders to debate against backdrop of global pandemic

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates return to the debate stage Sunday night, they will find that their party, the political stakes and the world look much different from when they last met less than three weeks ago.

The fast-moving coronavirus was something of an afterthought in that debate. Now the escalating crisis is likely to dominate it. Rising infections in the United States and around the world have prompted a dramatic slowdown of global travel, upended financial markets, and raised questions about President Donald Trump’s ability to lead the nation through a prolonged period of uncertainty.

Just two Democrats — former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — remain to make the case that they are best-positioned to challenge Trump in November. Five other candidates who joined them on stage in the Feb. 25 debate in South Carolina have dropped out, with many rallying behind Biden’s surging candidacy.

For both Biden and Sanders, the debate is a moment to display their leadership skills in front of what could be one of the largest audiences of the primary. They’ll aim to draw a contrast with Trump, but also with each other, arguing that they have the right experience, temperament and policy prescriptions to lead the nation through a crisis.

“Moments like these don’t come around often in campaigns and this is a perfect opportunity to show millions that you have what it takes,” said Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and campaign adviser to President Barack Obama. “They must show voters they are the answer to what is missing right now by being calm, honest, ready to lead and empathetic.”

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Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
Vice President Mike Pence points to a question as he speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Tyler Baldwin mops the floor after closing for the night at the Taproom at Pike Place, Sunday, March 15, 2020 where he works as a bartender in Seattle. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday night that he would order all bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities in the state to temporarily close to fight the spread of coronavirus, as Washington state has by far the most deaths in the U.S. from the disease. Baldwin said he closed more than an hour early Sunday after he heard the announcement. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A freeway sign urging people to wash their hands to avoid the COVID-19 virus is seen along the 101 Ventura freeway Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Westlake Village, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Shelves are emptied of paper toilet and product supplies at a Safeway store in Phoenix on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Arizona's governor and school superintendent on Sunday ordered a statewide closure of schools through at least March 27 as authorities rush to contain the outbreak of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
A store vendor wears a face mask as she waits for customers in Chinatown in New York, on Sunday, March 15, 2020. President Donald Trump on Sunday called on Americans to cease hoarding groceries and other supplies, while one of the nation's most senior public health officials called on the nation to act with more urgency to safeguard their health as the coronavirus outbreak continued to spread across the United States.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Workers from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing protective suits and respirators are given supplies as they line up before entering the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., to begin cleaning and disinfecting the facility, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The nursing home is at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
March 11th 2020 - Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. - File Photo by: zz/KGC-11/STAR MAX/IPx 2016 9/9/16 Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson at The 5th Biennial Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). (Los Angeles, CA)
NBA referee Marc Davis, left, takes a phone call as fellow referee Justin Van Duyne stands next to Davis before the basketball game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings was postponed at the last minute in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The league said the decision was made out of an "abundance of caution," because official Courtney Kirkland, who was scheduled to work the game, had worked the Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. A player for the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
NBA referee Marc Davis leaves the court after the the NBA basketball game between the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans was postponed at the last minute in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The postponement was due to what the league said was an "abundance of caution," because official Courtney Kirkland, who was scheduled to work the game, had worked the Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. A player for the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
From left Ellie Unruh, Abbie Unruh, Zoe Yates, and Evi Yates bump elbows instead of high-fives while playing volleyball at a local park Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Gilbert, Ariz. The girls were playing with friends after their respective volleyball clubs and teams practices and games were canceled statewide due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced earlier in the day that all schools and sports throughout Arizona are temporarily closed through March 27th challenging some parents to get creative in keeping their kids active. (AP Photo/Matt York)
A basketball fan walks past a sign on how to decrease the risk of catching the coronavirus outside a restroom at the American Airlines Arena during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
President Donald Trump speaks in an address to the nation from the Oval Office at the White House about the coronavirus Wednesday, March, 11, 2020, in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
FILE PHOTO: Voters cast their ballot in the Democratic primary election in Houston
A trader works on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, New York
Judie Shape, left, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, waves to her daughter, Lori Spencer, right, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, as they visit on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. In-person visits are not allowed at the nursing home. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Judie Shape, center, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, blows a kiss to her son-in-law, Michael Spencer, left, as Shape's daughter, Lori Spencer, right, looks on, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, as they visit on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. In-person visits are not allowed at the nursing home. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
As President Donald Trump listens, Vice President Mike Pence speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 9, 2020, about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Yirmeyahu Gourarie performs a Purim reading from the Book of Esther for residents under self-quarantine due to potential exposure to the new coronavirus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. In Westchester County, student volunteers from a Jewish secondary school were fanning out in teams to read the megillah on Monday evening and during the day Tuesday outside the homes of about 120 families from the community who are quarantined. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
This March 9, 2020, image provided by Carolyn Wright, a passenger aboard the Grand Princess, shows the disembarkation of the passengers from the cruise ship which is docked in Oakland, Ca. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Courtesy of Carolyn Wright via AP)
Tim Killian, center, a spokesman for Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., talks to reporters, Monday, March 9, 2020, at the facility near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A sign stands next to a sanitizing station at the entrance of the Vivint Smart Home Arena before an NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Workers prepare a wharf at the Port of Oakland to receive the Grand Princess in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship, miles off the port Sunday, is expected to dock Monday for novel coronavirus quarantine after multiple people tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
En esta imagen tomada de un video cortesía de la Guardia Nacional de California, un helicóptero del 129no batallón de rescate sobrevuela el crucero Gran Princess frente a las costas de California, el jueves 5 de marzo de 2020. (Guardia Nacional de California vía AP)
In this image from video, provided by the California National Guard, airmen with the 129th Rescue Wing drop virus testing kits down to the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California Thursday, March 5, 2020. Scrambling to keep the coronavirus at bay, officials ordered a cruise ship with 3,500 people aboard to stay back from the California coast Thursday until passengers and crew can be tested, after a traveler from its previous voyage died of the disease and at least two others became infected. The California National Guard 129th Rescue Wing lowered test kits onto the 951-foot (290-meter) Grand Princess by rope as the vessel lay at anchor off Northern California, and authorities said the results would be available on Friday. Princess Cruise Lines said fewer than 100 people aboard had been identified for testing. (California National Guard via AP)
Passengers look out from balconies aboard the Grand Princess as it cruises a holding pattern about 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco on Sunday, March 8, 2020. The ship is expected to dock in Oakland in the east San Francisco Bay on Monday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the mayor of Oakland sought Sunday to reassure the public that none of the passengers from the ship with multiple cases of the new coronavirus will be released into the public before undergoing a 14-day quarantine. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Carrying multiple people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Grand Princess maintains a holding pattern about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship is scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland on Monday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A man wears a mask aboard the Grand Princess as it maintains a holding pattern about 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco on Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship is scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland on Monday for COVID-19 quarantine after 21 people tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
SPRINGFIELD, VA - MARCH 7: Local Target store in the D.C area depleted of cleaning and sanitizing supplies and left with empty shelves as fear grow of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) reports increasing on March 7, 2020 in Springfield, Virginia. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
SPRINGFIELD, VA - MARCH 7: Local Target store in the D.C area depleted of cleaning and sanitizing supplies and left with empty shelves as fear grow of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) reports increasing on March 7, 2020 in Springfield, Virginia. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
The headquarters for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shown on Friday, March 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Donald Trump's trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefly scuttled Friday because of unfounded fears that someone there had contracted the coronavirus, was back on, giving the president another chance to calm growing alarm about the spread of the virus in America. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)
An ambulance backs into a parking lot, Friday, March 6, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., which has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. This ambulance left the facility after a short time and did not transport a patient. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ambulance workers move a man on a stretcher from the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash. into an ambulance, Friday, March 6, 2020. The facility is the epicenter of the outbreak of the the COVID-19 coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A woman uses protective gloves as she looks at her phone wrapped in a plastic bag while riding a New York City subway train, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar looks on as President Donald Trump shows a spending bill to combat the Coronavirus, at the White House, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump holds a photograph of coronavirus as Dr. Steve Monroe,right, with CDC speaks to members of the press at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Trump's trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefly scuttled Friday because of unfounded fears that someone there had contracted the coronavirus, was back on, giving the president another chance to calm growing alarm about the spread of the virus in America. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 3/6/20 People wear masks to protect themselves from the Corona Virus in New York City.
Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 3/6/20 People wear masks to protect themselves from the Corona Virus in New York City. Shoppers have cleared store shelves of sanitizing products.
Vice President Mike Pence, left, arrives with Debi Birx, center, White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Robert Redfield, right, director of the CDC, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state for a visit with state officials. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Vice President Mike Pence greets Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, as Pence arrives, Thursday, March 5, 2020 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Officials are avoiding handshakes due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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The coronavirus crisis rapidly upended plans for Sunday’s debate. First, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would hold the contest without a live audience. Then the debate was moved from a large venue in Arizona, one of the states holding a primary Tuesday, to a television studio in Washington because of concerns about cross-country travel. One of the moderators had to withdraw because of potential exposure to a person who tested positive for coronavirus.

It is Biden who will step on stage as the front-runner, a distinction that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago. After disappointing showings in the early contests, Biden roared back with a commanding victory in South Carolina and has continued to rack up wins across the country, winning broad and diverse coalitions of voters. Moderate Democratic leaders, including former rivals Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, have rallied behind his candidacy and voters have done the same.

Advisers say Biden will aim in Sunday's debate to show voters who backed Sanders or other liberal candidates that they have a home in his campaign. In one overture to liberals, Biden announced his support for a bankruptcy plan championed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who ended her campaign earlier this month and has yet to endorse.

In a virtual town hall on Friday, Biden said his support for Warren's proposal, which aims to simplify the bankruptcy process, is "one of the things that I think Bernie and I will agree on."

Biden holds a solid lead over Sanders in the all-important delegate race, and a strong showing in Tuesday’s primary contests could effectively guarantee his nomination. Four big states will be up for grabs: Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Florida, a perennial general election battleground where Biden appears to have an edge over Sanders.

After a strong start, the race has moved rapidly away from Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist with a loyal following among young voters and liberals. But he’s failed to expand his appeal, particularly among black voters, and his calls for a sweeping political and economic revolution have also fallen flat with suburban voters.

Sanders is facing some pressure from within the Democratic Party to step aside and allow Biden take Trump on one-on-one. Several Democratic groups that were waiting to endorse until after the primary have consolidated around Biden, including super PAC Priorities USA.

Sanders’ advisers say he is a realist about his current standing and the difficulty of the path ahead. Yet the senator is pledging to grill Biden in Sunday’s debate on his plans for tackling college debt, for his past support of the Iraq war and for his backing of multilateral trade agreements.

“I’m going to ask Joe Biden, I mean Joe is part of the establishment for a very long time, ‘Joe, what role have you played in trying to make sure that we end this massive level of income and wealth inequality where three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America?" Sanders said Saturday during an online “fireside chat” with supporters.

Yet it’s unclear if the issues Sanders is aiming to highlight will resonate with voters at a time when much of the nation’s focus has shifted to the growing toll of the coronavirus and put a spotlight on the need for presidential leadership. Schools and businesses across the country are closed, and many hospitals and clinics are struggling to obtain tests for the coronavirus.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

For Biden, the outbreak of a global pandemic has been a moment to bolster the central argument of his candidacy: that his eight years as vice president give him the experience, as well as the relationships in Washington and around the world, that are needed in the Oval Office during turbulent times.

With campaign rallies halted because of warnings against large gatherings, Biden delivered a speech in front of reporters and advisers on his proposal for combating coronavirus, including guaranteeing free testing. Sanders’ later announced his own speech, which focused largely on advocating for his call to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system and replace it with a Medicare for All program.

After Sunday’s debate, it’s unclear where the candidates and the campaign go from here. Neither Biden or Sanders has announced any public rallies for next week or given any indication of when they may be able to appear in person for voters again.

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Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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