Joe Biden's record on women's issues could take center stage at the Democratic debate this week

Key Points
  • Joe Biden could face some uncomfortable questions about his record on women this week at the first Democratic presidential debates in Miami.
  • The two-night debate on Wednesday and Thursday is the biggest event so far in the 2020 presidential campaign.
  • With three women on stage each night, the debates will also be historic.
  • For a candidate at the front of the pack who has faced scrutiny for his record on women's issues and who has a history of being a bit too frank, the event may prove to be a key test of discipline and staying power.
Former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at the IBEW Local 490 in Concord, NH on June 4, 2019.
Matthew J. Lee | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Joe Biden could face some uncomfortable questions about his record on women this week at the first Democratic presidential debates.

The two-night Miami debate is the biggest event of the 2020 presidential campaign so far. With three women on stage for each night, the debates will also be historic.

For a candidate at the front of the pack who has faced scrutiny for his record on women's issues and who has a history of being a bit too frank, the event will prove to be a key test of discipline and staying power.

The Democratic field has so far been relatively amicable. But Biden could be pressed about allegations that he inappropriately touched women in ways that made them feel uncomfortable and about how he handled Anita Hill's testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. Another issue could be Biden's previous support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for most abortions.

The debate is being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, and will air live on those networks starting at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday and Thursday. CNBC will also stream them.

Read more: 2020 long shot Marianne Williamson faces off with front-runners Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg at the Democratic debate

Biden is scheduled to debate on Thursday, where he will square off with nine rivals, including Sens. Bernie Sanders Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke are among the Democrats who will go head-to-head.

A likely foil to Biden could come from Gillibrand, who has made women's issues the centerpiece of her campaign. A spokesman for Gillibrand's campaign did not respond to a question about her strategy.

Biden's team expects rival candidates to leverage the increased press attention on the debate, possibly for attacks.

"We know candidates are looking for breakout moments in these debates," a Biden advisor said, speaking on condition of anonymity on a background basis. "Biden doesn't need a breakout moment. Any attacks from others during the debate will simply contrast with the vice president's positive message about his agenda and his emphasis on the extraordinary stakes of this election."

Biden is currently the leader among women voters, though factors like race, class and ideology are often more important for shaping voting patterns than gender.

The generational dividing line could be particularly key, especially with regard to Biden's history of physical interactions with women, according to Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

She said younger women may see Biden's actions as inappropriate in ways that older women do not. And Biden may have to show that he understands their feelings.

"If he starts laughing or expresses frustration, then it reinforces the critique, which is: 'You're not listening to other people,'" Dittmar said. "You're thinking more about your intent than you're understanding how others are perceiving your intent and how it's affecting them."

Inappropriate touching, Anita Hill and abortion

Biden's campaign has been dogged by questions concerning his record on women since the start.

Shortly before announcing his candidacy, Biden released a video pledging to be "more mindful and respectful" after a number of women accused him of touching them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

The day the campaign got up-and-running, The New York Times published an interview with Hill, who said she did not accept Biden's apology for his handling of her testimony during Thomas' confirmation hearings.

And earlier this month, Biden was forced to switch his long-held position on the Hyde Amendment just a day after prominent women's groups slammed him over it. The National Organization for Women said at the time that Biden should "consider leaving the race" if he maintained his support for it.

Biden's handling of the issues suggest that this is an area where the Biden team sees vulnerability.

Though Biden has held firm in the face of criticism from his rivals on issues like trade and race — Biden called on Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to apologize after Booker criticized Biden's comments about working with segregationist senators — on women's issues, Biden has already shown a willingness to occasionally give in or reverse course.

Debate format could benefit men

The format of the presidential debate could make it difficult for women candidates to directly go after Biden, according to Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which promotes women candidates.

"Voters expect women to stay above the fray," Hunter said.

But Hunter suggested that the debate could break new ground.

"When previously women have been on the debate stage they have been the only women on the debate stage," Hunter said. "When you have more than one woman, she no longer is expected to represent her entire gender, and it frees her up a bit."

The three women on stage with Biden will be Gillibrand, Harris and Marianne Williamson. Neither Gillibrand nor Harris responded to questions about how they would approach the debate. Williamson, though, said she would not go after any of the male candidates because of their age or gender.

"As woman, I know what it feels like when people automatically dismiss you for your sex," she said. "I don't want to do to a man what men have done to me."

According to Rutgers' Dittmar, the male debaters may have to think more actively about the gender dynamics at play. She cited the pivotal moment during the 2000 debate for New York's U.S. Senate seat in which candidate Rick Lazio was perceived to invade Hillary Clinton's space on the stage.

It's a moment no male candidate will want to repeat, she said.

"People will be watching your body language," Dittmar said. Her advice for Biden is "don't go over and touch any of your opponents."

—CNBC's John Schoen and Valerie Block contributed to this report.