The Note: Democratic debate marks urgent moment for 2020 contenders

PHOTO: Works crews set up sign next to the debate hall as preparations continue for the Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas, Sept. 11, 2019.PlayMike Blake/Reuters
WATCH Houston debate stage set ahead of 3rd DNC primary debate

THE TAKE with Rick Klein

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They will start the night together in one place.

But the Democratic candidates for president could -- and might need to -- position themselves farther apart to make the evening count.

The attention going into Thursday night's Democratic debate on ABC surrounds the front-runners sharing a stage for the first time. Yet neither former Vice President Joe Biden nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren face the same urgencies as some of their friends a bit farther from the center stage.

PHOTO: Works crews set up sign next to the debate hall as preparations continue for the Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas, Sept. 11, 2019. Mike Blake/Reuters
Works crews set up sign next to the debate hall as preparations continue for the Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas, Sept. 11, 2019.

Candidates including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke were naturally closer to the center of conversation when the debates were back-to-back 10-person affairs.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris find themselves in need of new storylines that could offer the promise of polling in the double digits. And Andrew Yang finds himself -- improbably -- moving closer to center stage, with a chance now to introduce himself to a broader swath of the public.

Houston could bring climactic moments to the Democratic race for president. But candidates who want this to be closer to the start of a conversation than the finish will need to make strong arguments for why they belong.

THE RUNDOWN with MaryAlice Parks

It's said that everything is bigger in Texas, and the stakes for this Democratic debate in Houston seem bigger too.

The candidates lately feel a pressure to reset their campaigns for the fall, only 3 1/2 months before voting begins, when voters are perhaps more clued in and anxious for a narrower field.

Some tried to dial down the heat Wednesday. Yang shot hoops to loosen up; former congressman O'Rouke played his drums.

PHOTO: Andrew Yang, left, and Beto ORourke Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images|Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Andrew Yang, left, and Beto O'Rourke

But Thursday evening they will zero in on issues that come with a new sense of urgency, after a blistering and violent summer in the country and Congress finally back in Washington.

The state and the country are still grieving after the horrific domestic terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas. The shooting in Midland and Odessa three weeks later became yet another rallying cry for gun safety reform.

Gun safety advocates as well as victims and families from El Paso are expected to be in the audience Thursday night -- a reminder that Texas has been at the center of many top issues in this race, from climate change to border disputes to detention centers to, of course, gun violence.

THE TIP with Armando Garcia

As 10 presidential candidates descend upon Houston for the Democratic debate, some have begun touting their ties to the battleground state. Both O'Rourke and Castro can claim home turf, with the latter hosting a "Castro Country" rally on Monday.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro speaks during the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention at the SNHU Arena, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro speaks during the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention at the SNHU Arena, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Warren's campaign credits Houston as the city that gave her "her chance at the American Dream." She went to the University of Houston and it's where she got her first teaching job, which she calls her "first love."

Harris will be returning to Texas Southern University for the debate after she last was there to release her plan to raise teacher salaries. The historically black college in Houston is in a county that dons her last name, and at her March rally a sea of yellow and purple posters claimed, "This is Harris County."

ONE MORE THING

In 2002, George W. Bush was president, "Friends" was in its ninth season, and Pete Buttigieg was 20 years old, studying for his undergraduate degree at Harvard University. As part of ABC News' new series, "The Contenders at 20," Buttigieg's classmates from Harvard fondly remember the unexpected talents he developed.

THE PLAYLIST

ABC News' "Start Here" podcast. Thursday morning's episode features ABC News Chief Political Analyst Matthew Dowd, who examines which candidates need to break through in Houston's Democratic debate. Then ABC News Senior Washington Reporter Devin Dwyer tells us about his trip through Texas, as Democratic voters and candidates look to turn the state blue in 2020. http://apple.co/2HPocUL

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY

  • Ten candidates participate in the third Democratic presidential debate hosted by ABC News, in partnership with Univision, at Texas Southern University in Houston: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
  • President Donald Trump lunches with the Secretary of State then visits Baltimore's Port Covington Landing Zone and the Marriott Waterfront before delivering remarks at the 2019 House Republican Conference Member Retreat Dinner.
  • Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Concerned Women for America's 40th Anniversary Celebration at 7 p.m. at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
  • Former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., participates in the Salem Democrats Coffee and Conversation beginning at 10 a.m. in Salem, New Hampshire.
  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, attends the University of New Hampshire Law Candidate Forum at 6 p.m. in Concord, New Hampshire.
  • Montana Gov. Steve Bullock hosts a roundtable discussion at 1:30 p.m. CDT in Des Moines. He then hosts a meet and greet at 3:30 p.m. in Clive.
  • Billionaire Tom Steyer hosts a meet and greet at noon CDT in Iowa City. He then hosts a conversation at 5 p.m. in Davenport.
  • Author Marianne Williamson hosts a post-debate commentary at 8 p.m. PDT in Beverly Hills, California.
  • Download the ABC News app and select "The Note" as an item of interest to receive the day's sharpest political analysis every weekday.

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