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Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows

The Democratic presidential field is facing its first real winnowing as more than half a dozen candidates confront the increasingly real possibility that they could be left out of the next primary debate.

The fierce competition for money, air time and polling support is taking its toll on the record field of contenders.

In little more than a week’s time, three candidates – former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperIf the Democratic debates were pro wrestling, de Blasio is comic relief Hickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert Inslee The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonIf the Democratic debates were pro wrestling, de Blasio is comic relief Stocks close with steep losses as Trump, China escalate trade war Trump quips Dow dropped because of Moulton's exit from 2020 race MORE (D-Mass.) – exited the race after acknowledging the all but insurmountable odds in their bids for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Morning Consult survey underscored the degree to which the candidates struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Despite months on the campaign trail, Inslee and Moulton were the two least known candidates after the first two series of debates, with 78 percent of Democrats saying they had never heard of Moulton or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion and 71 percent saying the same of Inslee. 

At least eight other candidates have found themselves in similar predicaments, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin Delaney The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Md.) or Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John Ryan The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Ohio). They appear nowhere close to qualifying for the third primary debate in September, and are faced with increasingly daunting polling and fundraising gaps between themselves and the field’s top-tier contenders.

“I think you’ll start to see resources dry up for some. I think you’ll see support and enthusiasm diminish and dry up for some. And that’s going to force them to make some decisions,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.

Pollsters say the massive field of contenders has had a freezing effect on voters, many of whom are tuning in for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the number of options as the race heads into the fall. 

Some Democrats are eager for the field to shrink, believing that it’s past time for focus to fall on those considered to be top contenders - former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates MORE.

“It’s healthy for it to dwindle at this point,” Seawright said. “If we continue to bloody ourselves up and drag this out, I think we’ll do ourselves a huge disservice.” 

Hickenlooper has already launched a new campaign for the Senate and Inslee will seek reelection to a third term as governor, and their early exits from the presidential field could ramp up pressure on some of the other low-polling contenders to follow suit. 

“Hickenlooper and Inslee had to get out because they had other races to run and win,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who has endorsed Harris in the primary contest.

Democrats badly want to take over the Senate, and at least two long-shot presidential contenders – Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve Bullock The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race MORE and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke – are viewed as top tier Senate candidates in their states with potential to beat the GOP incumbents.

But it’s possible that the massive field of contenders and the chaotic nature of the race could keep many long-shots in, with the hope that anything can happen for those left standing when votes are cast.

“It’s an odd year, unlike any I’ve seen in my political life,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose upstart campaign was one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 Democratic primary.

“It’s way too early to tell who might win,” Dean continued. “We might be waiting until the Iowa caucuses for the apple cart to be upset, so my advice to candidates, even if you don’t make the next debate, so what? Even if you finish fourth in Iowa, you could still punch your ticket South Carolina or Nevada. You’ve got a shot and there’s an awfully long way to go.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the Democratic field is on the cusp of truly narrowing. Sellers said that it would take one of the race’s higher-profile contenders – O’Rourke and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate Gillibrand unveils mental health plan MORE (D-N.Y.), for example –  dropping out to signal a real winnowing. 

“You have individuals who were contenders to be president of the United States when they announced – the Gillibrands of the world, the Betos of the world. Until they decide to get out, it’s not a real winnowing.”

Only 10 to 12 Democrats will likely qualify for the September debate. But at least eight others have little chance of making it: Bullock, Delaney, Ryan, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries MORE (Colo.), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioIf the Democratic debates were pro wrestling, de Blasio is comic relief The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Mayor de Blasio, the small business killer MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Williamson unveils plan to create Cabinet-level Department of Peace MORE, Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin Messam2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Moulton campaign makes formal case to DNC to be added to debate stage MORE and former Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.).

But some of those who don’t make the stage could still qualify for the fourth debate in October, likely keeping many candidates in the race for at least a few more months.

Two other candidates, billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? MORE (D-Hawaii), are on the verge of qualifying for the September debate, but still need to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates register at least 2 percent in four approved polls to secure their spots on stage.

Missing out on the next primary debate could come at a cost. Televised debates offer candidates the chance to pitch themselves in front of a national audience, and several contenders have said that they saw groundswells of support after appearing on the debate stage.

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," said Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic consultant and the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage; to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

Despite the recent exits from the race and the looming debate qualifying deadline, some candidates insist that they will keep going. 

Delaney, who has been running for the Democratic nomination for over two years but whose candidacy has struggled to gain traction, told Boston public radio station WGBH on Thursday that he believes his odds will improve as the field winnows down.

“I’m going to be in the race. I’m staying in the race,” he said. “The field gets smaller, the [pool of] interested Democrats gets larger, and they become kind of a more moderate thing, and that’s where I think all the work we’ve done is going to start paying off.”

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