(Corrects reference in 4th paragraph that said Bernie Sanders was not mentioned in the first debate)
By James Oliphant
MIAMI, June 27 (Reuters) - During the second night of the Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, most eyes will likely be trained on former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders – but for wildly divergent reasons.
Biden will be looking to safeguard his front-runner status. He has enjoyed a healthy lead in opinion polls since he entered the Democratic race to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
Sanders, a Vermont lawmaker, has been running second to Biden in most polls. But he has seen his support erode over the past several weeks and will be looking to reignite his campaign, perhaps by targeting Biden.
In a surprisingly heated first debate on Wednesday night, when 10 Democratic contenders clashed over healthcare and border policy but agreed there was a desperate need to remove Trump from the White House, Sanders was only briefly mentioned and Biden was not named at all.
The two top contenders will share the stage with eight other Democrats, including two other top-tier candidates who both face challenges, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California.
The debate will also include U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Kirsten Gillibrand, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell, self-help guru Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. All six are polling nationally around 1% or less.
But the exchanges between Biden and Sanders, who will stand next to each other onstage, could steal the limelight. On the trail, Sanders has been unsparing in his criticism of Biden, who served nearly four decades in the Senate from Delaware and two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president.
An avowed “Democratic socialist,” Sanders has bashed the more moderate Biden over his record on trade, climate change, healthcare and, most recently, Biden’s remarks about working with segregationists during his early days in the Senate.
Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group that endorsed Sanders in his 2016 presidential run, said in a pre-debate memo that Thursday’s debate offered Sanders a chance to prove “he’s the progressive best suited to not just beat Donald Trump, but also the rest of the Democratic field - including Joe Biden.”
But Sanders has not always played to type. He was notably reluctant to attack Hillary Clinton during their first debate in the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating fight.
Pillorying Biden would not necessarily boost Sanders’ campaign, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who has worked for congressional and state candidates.
“If Biden slides, it helps one of the moderate candidates,” Bannon said. “The big problem for Sanders is Elizabeth Warren.”
Warren, a progressive U.S. senator from Massachusetts, has been steadily climbing in opinion polls, pulling closer to Sanders for the No. 2 slot behind Biden. She was the first choice in a recent straw poll of members of the influential progressive group MoveOn, with Sanders coming second.
“Warren is sucking the oxygen out of Bernie’s campaign,” Bannon said. “She is siphoning off progressive voters who supported Bernie in 2016.”
Sanders may choose instead to burnish his progressive credentials at the debate to fend off Warren, who was onstage for Wednesday’s night debate and emerged largely unscathed, as several of the lesser-known contenders turned their fire on one another.
For Biden, the most experienced debater in the field, Thursday is an opportunity to steady the ship after a series of rocky moments that included a flip-flop on his abortion position and the controversy over his remarks about working with segregationist senators decades ago in the interest of civility and getting things done.
As he has done on the campaign trail, he will likely spend the night defending his record and talking about Trump rather than other Democrats.
Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, will make for a sharp contrast with the younger candidates onstage, including 37-year-old Buttigieg, 52-year-old Gillibrand and 54-year-old Harris, three candidates who may represent the future of the party.
Buttigieg, who enjoyed a brief initial surge as a candidate, comes to Miami after facing a crisis in South Bend. The fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer earlier this month laid bare some of the problems Buttigieg faces with African-Americans in his city – and with black voters in general.
Harris’ campaign has not taken flight like many political analysts expected and could use a boost from the debate. A polished public speaker from her days as a prosecutor and attorney general in California, she could be well positioned to make an impact.
One dynamic to watch is how aggressively Harris goes after Biden. She has criticized him for, among other things, his support of the 1994 crime bill that opponents say opened the door to the mass incarceration of black men.
But she is also considered a favorite for the vice presidential slot should Biden capture the nomination. She may instead address Buttigieg’s issues in order to weaken his candidacy.
With 10 Democrats attending the two-hour debate, each candidate will only have 60 seconds to answer a question and 30 seconds to respond to a follow-up, giving the field little time to leave a mark.
Both Miami debates are sponsored by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. NBC News personalities Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd and NBC and Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart will serve as moderators.
Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney