With Memorial Day in the rearview mirror, the next political destination for the Democratic presidential pack of contenders is the first two-night debate scheduled for June 26-27 in Miami. Twenty of the qualifying candidates are expected to take the stage hoping to walk away with an attention-getting debate performance that will propel them into the spotlight in what is a ridiculously crowded field.

One candidate has everything to lose, and that's front-runner Joe Biden. He leads in every poll, with a wide margin over his competitors in most. He also leads President Trump by as much as 10 points in some polls. 

David Winston

The big question is how will he hold up against attacks from the other candidates in the race or even a tough question or two from the debate moderators. That remains to be seen, but this isn't Biden's first rodeo. This is his third time out of the gate, and his first two bids for the Oval Office didn't go well.

In 2008 and 2012, Biden held his own against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, but even with his years on the political scene, he didn't exit the stage with an overwhelming victory over the less experienced Republican VP candidates. In fact, Biden only barely met expectations, with many polls and pundits giving his opponents, especially Ryan, a slight edge.

What should be even more worrying for the Biden campaign, in those somewhat disappointing debates, is that he wasn't even the target of the attacks. He was there as the defender of the faithful, arguing for Obama and the Democratic policies of the previous four years. Given that he was touting the slowest economic recovery since World War II, it was a tough case to make, and Biden only managed a draw at best.

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This time, however, Biden will be defending himself and his 40-year political record -- complete with more than a few controversial votes by today's progressive standards and a penchant for gaffes that often made him the butt of jokes by late-night comics.

For Democratic voters trying to make up their minds about their next presidential nominee, the question is whether to go with their hearts or their minds. What is more important to them? Beating Trump at all costs, including on ideology, or ensuring that the next president is not just a Democrat or even a liberal Democrat but a pure progressive ready to take the country hard left?

All in all, while it's better to lead in the polls than not, it puts a target on your back. Biden's greatest strength at the moment is his huge advantage in the polls -- against his Democratic opponents and the president.

It's true that polls at this early stage can only tell us so much. They don't predict the future, but they do have political implications as reflections of current reality. And when it comes to political self-fulfilling prophecies, it's better to be at 33% than 3 percent.

But a lead in the polls is a double-edged sword. Expectations for a front-runner are always high. One of the most difficult challenges in politics is sustaining a commanding lead. Biden is no exception to that rule. The debates are a huge wild card for him, with his lead in the polls at risk. Democratic voters and the rest of America is about to find out whether "Lunch Bucket Joe" is a man of steel ready to take on Trump or just a politician with a glass jaw and a lot of political baggage.

For most candidates, the path to a presidential nomination is more likely to be a marathon than a sprint. If Biden does poorly in this all-important first debate, it may lead people to ask, "Can Joe Biden go the distance?"

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David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. 


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