DNC rules for October debate gives struggling candidates longer window to qualify

Democratic presidential candidates at risk of missing the September debate will have a longer window to qualify for the one in October.

We've now had the chance to see 21 different Democratic candidates debate, across two months and a variety of different pairings.

While the race isn't totally set in stone yet -- no actual votes will be cast for another six-ish months -- we now have a much clearer picture of where the race stands.

Outside of former Vice President Joe Biden, there's simply no oxygen for a candidate to be positioned as a moderate or a centrist. While the likes of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney put in strong showings in the CNN-sponsored second Democratic debate, they drew significant scoffing and scorn -- both in the room and in the after-action reports from the liberals in the party.

That liberal banner, as expected, will be carried by either Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) or Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) -- although neither are willing to attack the other directly just yet. In the Detroit debate, they generally played nice with one another and teamed up to fend off attacks from the moderates on the stage.

With Biden in the moderate/centrist role and Sanders and Warren battling for the true liberal slot, the other lane appears to be something in between those two -- a sort of left-leaning but not total liberal who has some sort of pragmatic bent to them. That's where California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg come in. Both are seeking that middle-ish lane and, if they can actually create it, could well emerge as serious contenders for the nomination.

Below, the 10 Democrats with the best chance of being the party's nominee, ranked. If you don't like where your candidate is ranked -- or if they aren't ranked at all -- just wait! We rank the candidates every two weeks.

10. Andrew Yang: Yang spoke for the least amount of time in the July debates, just like in his June performance. But unlike in the June debates, Yang generated some headlines. In addition to calling for action to combat the climate crisis, Yang also said that those actions are already "too late," and that we should be moving people to higher ground. He is one qualifying poll away from appearing in a September debate, which he'll probably make. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Beto O'Rourke: The former Texas congressman is having a moment following his "are you kidding me" response to media questions in the wake of the El Paso shootings when he was asked if President Donald Trump is a racist. But that moment is also spurring calls for O'Rourke to return to Texas and challenge Republican Sen. John Cornyn in 2020 rather than continue what increasingly looks like a hopeless presidential bid. (Previous ranking: 7)

8. Julián Castro: We moved Castro up a spot in part because his unique biography stands out. If this election is about beating Trump on immigration, who better to take him on than a Latino from the border state of Texas? It may not ultimately matter, but Castro proved adept at highlighting differences on immigration policies with Biden as well. Like Yang, Castro is one qualifying poll away from making a September debate. He'll likely get that poll. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. Amy Klobuchar: On the good news front for the Minnesota senator, she's already qualified for the third debate next month. On the bad news front, her campaign continues to simply tread water in the 2020 contest -- struggling to break through in the CNN debate last week. Making the next debate crucial for Klobuchar in that it should keep money coming into her campaign coffers and preserve her chance to make a move sometime between now and the end of the year. (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Cory Booker: Booker got in a memorable line about flavors of Kool-Aid against Biden at the debate last week. Booker backers can make the case for New Jersey's junior senator rather easily, and we agree to a point, which he is why he is at No. 6 on our list. But despite a strong debate performance, Booker managed a meager 2% in a national poll of the Democratic primary by Quinnipiac University. Booker scored 0%(!) among black voters. His polling in the early states isn't much better. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg soared in the spring and has, largely, held steady just outside of the first tier ever since. He's lost some support from the polling highs he achieved earlier this summer -- he's currently in fifth in Real Clear Politics' polling average with 5.5% nationally -- but remains in solid position especially when you consider his massive fundraising over the previous three months. In the CNN debate, Buttigieg began to turn to a new message: His youth (he's 37) isn't a weakness but a strength, since so many older politicians have failed to bring about real and meaningful change. Expect to hear more of that. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Bernie Sanders: We aren't convinced that Sanders will be able to put together a coalition to win the primary. Sanders' chances go up, however, if this turns into a contest in which caucus and primary winners are taking a low percentage of the vote. The reason is that Vermont's junior senator seems to have a solid base of about 15%. One way you can see that is Sanders' voters are far more likely than others to say that issues matter more than electability. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Kamala Harris: The California senator came into the CNN debates in Detroit with close-to-impossibly-high expectations after her star turn in the first debate. Because of her polling bump after that first debate, she was also much more of a target in the second debate. And she struggled somewhat under those circumstances. Harris remains a potent candidate who continues to look like the best ideological fit for all sides of the party. But she needs to tighten up her answers on her health care position and be more ready to defend her record record as California's attorney general. (Previous ranking: 2)

2. Elizabeth Warren: Two sets of debates are in the books, and Warren has done well in both. Unlike Harris' first debate bump, Warren has been steadily rising in the polls. Building support this way is likely to be far more sustainable. Warren also has been overperforming her national numbers in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. The big question for Warren is whether she'll be able to win over black voters, who are key in the primary. So far, she's regularly been polling below 10% with them. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Joe Biden: Was the former vice president great in the CNN debate? He was not. Was he better than in the first debate at the end of June? He was -- by a significant amount. After a polling slide in the wake of the first debate, Biden appears to have stabilized in the low 30s, which gives him double the support of his next rival. We still have doubts as to whether his message -- Trumpism is a fever that will break and politics will be good again -- is one that an angry Democratic base will buy. But for now, Biden remains the frontrunner -- and clearly so. (Previous ranking: 1)

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