A relatively small lineup of seven Democratic presidential contenders will take the stage for a debate on Thursday, one day after the House of Representatives made Republican Donald Trump the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.
The sixth debate in the race to pick a Democratic challenger to Trump in the November 2020 election features the fewest participants since the debates began in the summer, potentially giving each candidate a bigger spotlight and more time to engage with one another.
The debate will also offer Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren a chance to renew their intensifying campaign rivalry over transparency in fundraising and in their past private-sector work.
But the debate's timing, coming a week before the holidays and amid the impeachment fireworks in Washington, could reduce the audience and the benefits for Democratic candidates seeking a boost ahead of the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 3.
The debate in Los Angeles follows the House's largely party-line vote on Wednesday to impeach Trump on charges he abused the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Democratic contender Joe Biden, and obstructed Congress' probe of the matter.
All the Democratic White House contenders have spoken in support of the impeachment inquiry, but the historic prospect of a U.S. Senate trial in January to determine whether to remove Trump from office is certain to be a prime debate topic. The Republican-controlled chamber is likely to acquit the president.
Three of the candidates on the debate stage, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Warren, will sit as jurors at the Senate trial. Two other Democratic contenders who did not qualify for the debate, U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Michael Bennet, also will be jurors.
The Democratic White House race remains up for grabs seven weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, with a three-way battle at the top of national polls among Biden, Sanders and Warren, and Buttigieg rising to lead some polls in early voting states.
Biden, the centrist former U.S. vice president, and progressive leader Sanders have solidified their leading positions in recent weeks, making them potential debate targets. The moderate Buttigieg could face renewed attacks given his poll strength in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Warren, who has struggled to recapture her summer momentum, demanded recently that Buttigieg disclose his biggest fundraisers, open his private fundraising events to reporters and release details on his clients at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co - all of which he has since done.
'CHANGE OF STRATEGY'
The attacks on Buttigieg were a change of strategy for Warren, who had mostly refrained from criticizing her rivals by name. The debate could give her a bigger, prime-time stage to pursue that strategy by going after Buttigieg and perhaps Biden.
"She has a greater incentive to be a bigger part of this debate, and I would expect her to continue that approach with Buttigieg," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. "The moderates are in a little better position this time than in past debates."
Buttigieg has fired back at Warren, who does not hold big-ticket fundraisers and has focused her campaign on fighting corruption and corporate greed. He has called for her to release her tax returns from her time as a legal consultant for corporate clients. She has released details of nearly $2 million in earnings from corporate clients over the decades.
The number of candidates on stage was narrowed from 10 last month in Georgia, and 12 in October, by tougher polling and fundraising eligibility requirements.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who had qualified for the debate stage in Los Angeles, dropped out of the race earlier this month. Two others in the November debate, Booker and U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, did not make the cut.
In a party that prides itself on its diversity, the debate lineup has been criticized for being nearly all-white - Asian-American entrepreneur Andrew Yang is the only minority candidate to qualify.
Also participating in the debate will be billionaire activist Tom Steyer.