POLITICAL NEWS - Ten Democratic White House hopefuls face a significant early test of their presidential timber Wednesday in America's biggest political debate in years, with Elizabeth Warren center stage arguing that her progressive policies can defeat incumbent Donald Trump.
Millions of voters are expected to watch the sprawling two-night affair in Miami, with the climax Thursday as former vice president Joe Biden squares off against nine different challengers, including number two candidate Bernie Sanders.
Despite the feverish political climate in Washington and heavy campaigning in early voting states, many in the American heartland will be focusing on the 2020 race for the first time Wednesday, eager to hear from some candidates who are only now introducing themselves to a national audience.
Candidates will have less than 10 minutes to make their mark, but each will want to walk off stage with a victory, perhaps a viral moment that advances their cause, draws new donors and keeps them in the headlines.
Wednesday's showdown is Warren's to lose. As the night's highest-polling candidate, she will look to sustain the momentum that has propelled her further into the spotlight in recent weeks.
But Biden's presence will loom over both debate nights, which air live at 9:00 pm on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
Rivals must decide whether they fire broadsides at the Democratic frontrunner, or collectively train their anger on the president, whom many of the candidates have said should face impeachment proceedings.
With four of the top five candidates debating on Thursday, Warren's session feels more like an undercard to the following night's main event.
She squares off against fellow senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and San Antonio ex-mayor Julian Castro, the only Latino in the race.
More than any other candidate, Warren, 70, has given a clear picture of her presidential priorities, and she could have space to flesh out her ideas - like instituting a wealth tax or breaking up big tech companies - without the complication of debating the two older white men who lead her in the polls.
"She was not my first choice, but after listening to her and reading her plan, I am totally convinced she is the next president," Timothy Sylvester, a 56-year-old retiree wearing a Warren T-shirt, told AFP outside the debate hall.
Trump will be an obvious target during the showdown, but Sylvester urged "a positive exchange of ideas," not just "bashing" of the president.
Economy, health care, immigration
Democrats will likely face questions on rising US wealth inequality; how to expand health care; climate change; gun violence; and the current hot-button issue of immigration.
Earlier Wednesday Warren highlighted the border crisis and mounting public alarm over the conditions of migrant children by visiting a detention facility in Homestead, Florida.
"What is happening as the direct result of activities of the United States government is wrong," she said outside the facility, after hugging women and children protesting the conditions inside.
"It is a stain on our country, and we must speak out," said Warren, one of several candidates including Klobuchar to visit the center about an hour from Miami.
Among Wednesday's subplots: Booker, 50, an accomplished orator and African-American senator, is spinning his wheels in polling and needs a breakout moment to alter his trajectory in a very crowded field.
And O'Rourke, 46 and accused of having a thin resume, will try to show he has the policy chops, and not just the telegenic smile and energy that marked the early months of his campaign.
Many Americans will be watching more carefully Thursday when a clash of the old guard featuring Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, might dominate.
Biden's ideological moderation could win over white male voters, while Sanders, a Democratic socialist, is selling a "political revolution" of economic populism, including a demand for Medicare for all.
The pair will face up-and-comers like Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race; Pete-Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana; and dark horse Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and political novice.
Despite flying to Asia Wednesday, Trump - who has mocked Warren as "Pocahontas" for her claims of Native American heritage - will tune in from Air Force One, perhaps with some high-altitude strafing via Twitter.
"It just seems very boring, but I'm going to watch it," he told Fox.