- 2020 frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are finally set to square off face to face.
- Democrats may be salivating at the chance to hit Trump on the economy — but on stage, they might have to fend off questions about their own economic plans.
- The seismic moves in the trade war between the U.S. and China make it a likely topic for the third debate.
For the 10 Democrats who have made it to the third presidential debate, the biggest target may still be President Donald Trump. But the candidates will likely also spend more time staking out their competing visions of the future of American industries, and the government's role in shaping them.
One big showdown to watch on business and economic issues: Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, two of the three leading Democratic presidential candidates, are finally set to square off on the debate stage.
Biden and Warren had clashed long before they became rivals in the 2020 race. And there are hints that they could butt heads Thursday night on health care, corporate money and other issues.
Warren, who has supplied a steady stream of policy plans throughout her campaign, frames herself as a progressive capitalist who has the guts and the political wherewithal to take on the big banks and powerful corporations. Biden, who has maintained a steady lead in the polls since he launched his campaign, is making more moderate appeals and touting his track record as former President Barack Obama's right-hand man.
To Republicans, though, they both look like radicals when it comes to business and the economy, said Matt Gorman, a former aide to presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
"A relative centrist compared to [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders" — a top candidate who calls himself a democratic socialist — "is pretty damn far left," Gorman said.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are also slated to join the fray in the debate in Houston. It will be broadcast by ABC News on Thursday night from 8 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET.
Here are the top business issues that could be in play at Thursday night:
With U.S. growth slowing by some measures, fears have begun to spread among investors and market watchers that an economic correction, or even a recession, could be on the horizon.
Those concerns may be creeping toward voters, whose usually positive view of the economy under Trump has faded slightly in recent weeks, according to polls.
Democrats may be salivating at the chance to hit Trump on the political issue that is often considered his strongest. Some already have — even though much economic data still show that the economy is healthy.
Biden, for instance, recently slammed Trump's "erratic" handling of "an economy that's teetering on a recession," Fox News reported.
On the debate stage, the candidates might first have to fend off questions about their own economic plans.
The candidates should be prepared to answer questions about how they would solve a potential economic downturn, said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"If you were president, faced with a slowing economy," Galston asked as an example, "what would you do?"
That line of questioning could be extended to the U.S. debt — now over $22.5 trillion — since Democrats have routinely touted the bottom-line cost of their legislative plans in an effort to emphasize their sweeping ambitions.
Yang, meanwhile, has pushed a Universal Basic Income plan that would give $1,000 a month to every American citizen. The Nonprofit Tax Foundation has expressed skepticism that that proposal adds up, as Yang promises.
Yang's campaign told CNBC that the threats of robotics and Big Tech are top economic issues, but they are bound to be ignored in the debate.
"Andrew strongly believes that the automation of jobs is one of the biggest issues of our time, but he highly doubts the topic will make it to the debate stage since it doesn't receive the attention it deserves," his campaign said. "Bringing attention to this issue is one of the primary reason's he's running for President."
The rest of the field has put forward a wide array of economic ideas, many of which involve raising taxes on the nation's top earners, boosting low-income Americans, regulating big banks and supporting green energy. The newest such plan comes from Warren, who on Thursday proposed a sweeping expansion in Social Security benefits funded by new taxes on the rich.
"There's a debate within the Democratic Party about the place of the private sector vis-a-vis government. That's perhaps the dominant economic question" within the party, Galston said.
Warren is sending chills down the spines of Wall Street executives, CNBC's Jim Cramer said Tuesday. More and more, Cramer said, he's hearing people on Wall Street saying, "She's got to be stopped."
Warren, who has been climbing in public opinion polls, took that news as a badge of honor. "I'm Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message," she tweeted in response.
Biden, on the other hand, was headed to Wall Street for multiple fundraisers just last week. Biden's draw for the influence industry was strong enough that his campaign officials had to try to limit his interactions with lobbyists at fundraising events.
Biden, a multidecade Washington veteran, has been able to raise a lot of money in a short time. But his campaign donors could become a sticking point in the debate against Warren and Sanders, who have sworn off top-dollar fundraisers.
"Bernie will continue focusing on fundamentally changing our economy to work for everyone, and he will aggressively challenge dishonest right-wing attacks and corporate-sponsored talking points," his campaign said in a statement. "He's the strongest candidate to take on a rigged economy because he doesn't take its money and he's building a grassroots movement fueled by small-dollar donations."
CNBC asked the campaigns of all 10 participants about the top business or economic issues they hope to cover in the debate. Only Sanders' and Yang's campaigns responded.
"I think it's reasonable to ask what Wall Street has done lately to promote, or even advocate, the national interest," Galston said.
"I think the reality of the current situation is that the leading candidates all have enough money to run their campaigns as they wish," he said, adding that Biden would not be well-served to become "publicly identified as Wall Street's favorite candidate."
Twenty candidates, who battled in shifts of 10 over two nights during the second debate, discussed trade extensively. The seismic moves in the trade war between the U.S. and China — in the past month alone — make it a likely topic for the third debate.
Democrats have roundly criticized Trump's handling of his administration's efforts to rebalance the U.S. trade relationship with China and address issues such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers.
The protracted negotiations, which had stalled in the spring but are slated to resume in the coming weeks, have resulted in both countries slapping tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of each other's imported goods.
But not all of the candidates oppose tariffs out of hand. Sanders, in particular, holds trade views that in some ways align with Trump's, including his willingness to hit China with tariff.
It's been the source of some heated intraparty debate. After Biden downplayed China's threat to the U.S. in the early days of his campaign, Sanders' campaign tweeted, "It's wrong to pretend that China isn't one of our major economic competitors."
The candidates may also be asked about the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as the USMCA, the trade deal that Trump intends to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with.
That trilateral deal, which has been kept in the House by Democrats who demand changes, received almost no attention in the previous debate in Michigan.
Health care was a front-burner issue in the first two Democratic debates. It probably will be in Houston, too.
All Democrats want to find ways to expand health-care coverage for more Americans. But there are huge chasms of difference between them about how to achieve that goal.
Sanders has long advocated a government-run program — "Medicare for All" — that applies to everyone. His proposal, currently a bill that has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, would widen the types of coverage available, as well as push private insurers out of the Medicare mix in favor of a single-payer model.
His bill was endorsed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who dropped out of the 2020 race late last month. Warren, too, endorsed Sanders' overhaul plan. "I'm with Bernie on Medicare for All," she said at the first Democratic debate.
Harris had once signaled as a presidential candidate that she wants to end private insurance.
Others have not gone to such lengths. Klobuchar has supported a public option, for instance. Biden wants a "Medicare-like public option" that has "premium-free access" for people who would qualify for Medicaid but live in states where where governments have not expanded access to the insurance program for low-income people.
— CNBC's John Schoen, Sunny Kim and Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.