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Debate's top 5 Democrats are a varied lot

Michael Mathes
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Posters are seen on the side of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, where the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections will be held

Posters are seen on the side of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, where the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections will be held (AFP Photo/Jim WATSON)

Washington (AFP) - Democrats are in Miami, Florida for their first debate -- and first inflection point -- of the 2020 election cycle, with ex-vice president Joe Biden taking the stage as frontrunner for the first time.

Ten candidates including Senator Elizabeth Warren square off Wednesday, while Thursday's 10 feature Biden and three others polling in the top five.

It's the most diverse field in modern US election history. The top five include two women, an African-American, and a gay military veteran.

Their politics spans the spectrum, from Biden's centrism to the Democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders.

Here are the leading candidates in order of polling position:

- Joe Biden -

Former vice president, age 76.

The outright frontrunner has clear advantages over his rivals: name recognition, experience, popularity, and an uncanny ability to connect with working class voters.

But the gaffe-prone Democratic icon has been uninspiring in recent campaign stops including last weekend's high-profile events in South Carolina.

His record with women has raised questions, as several have accused him in the past of inappropriate touching.

He has political baggage, notably his support for a 1990s law that led to mass incarceration of black men.

Biden faced withering criticism last week when he spoke about segregationist senators, and his handling of a controversial abortion-related issue drew scrutiny.

With rivals seeking breakout moments, Biden must be prepared for attacks, and Thursday night will be the biggest debate test to date.

- Bernie Sanders -

US senator, 77.

The chronically disheveled lawmaker remains hugely popular, and is looking to reclaim the magic that nearly catapulted him to the nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

In the years since, several of his policy positions like expanding healthcare coverage have become fundamental norms for a party shifting leftward.

His status as a Democratic socialist makes him a target for President Donald Trump and other Republicans seeking to tar all in the opposition party with the brush of socialism.

Several Sanders policies address America's economic inequalities, including his call to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15. On Monday he rolled out an ambitious, $2 trillion plan to make public college free and erase all existing student loan debt.

- Elizabeth Warren -

US senator, 70.

The persistently wonkish Warren -- "I have a plan for that," she often boasts -- is the singular candidate to gain substantial momentum in recent weeks.

She releases policy proposals with dizzying frequency, including a plan unveiled Tuesday to secure US elections and mandate automatic voter registration.

The former Harvard Law School professor has routinely criticized the US economy as a "rigged" system, a theme she hammers home at every campaign event.

She was picked by Obama to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 following the global financial crisis. Two years later she won election to the Senate.

- Pete Buttigieg -

Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, 37.

Buttigieg emerged from virtual obscurity earlier this year to land on the national stage with a thunderclap.

Brainy, calm and deliberative, Buttigieg has amassed an extraordinary resume: Harvard graduate, Obama campaign volunteer, and Navy reservist who put his mayoral duties on hold to deploy to Afghanistan for seven months.

He came out as gay during his re-election, and being in a same-sex marriage has boosted his profile.

Buttigieg made waves during a March town hall meeting, when he accused Vice President Mike Pence of going from a champion of religious liberty to "cheerleader for the porn star presidency."

But he has recently faced the biggest crisis of his mayorship, with African-American South Bend residents angrily jeering him after the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.

- Kamala Harris -

US senator, 54.

The only person of color in the top five, Harris is the daughter of immigrants -- a Jamaican father and Indian mother. After an impressive presidential campaign rollout in February earned rave reviews, her support has slipped back into single digits.

In the Senate just 18 months, she quickly built a reputation as a rigorous questioner of Trump's nominees, thanks to her six years as California's attorney general.

She earned praise for securing billions in relief for California homeowners after the financial crisis, but drew criticism for her prosecutorial record.

Harris is a fiery critic of Trump's policies on immigration and racial equality.