AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Immigration and health care were two of the biggest issues to draw differences among the Democratic presidential candidates last night. Tonight 10 more will be on stage, including some of the biggest names in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will be right in the middle. Want to bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson - she's in Miami. That's where the candidates are preparing for tonight's matchup. Hey there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So people are saying that they did see differences among these Democrats last night. And it was notable that candidates didn't aggressively offer a kind of prebuttal to Biden or Sanders or even President Trump. So how do you think things are going to change tonight?
LIASSON: I think tonight there's some obvious contrast. Just by looking at the stage, you have the two guys standing in the center, Biden and Sanders. You couldn't have a greater ideological contrast between them. They're about the same age; they're both fighting Democrats. But they're from very different wings of the party. Sanders is a proud Democratic Socialist who wants a government takeover of the private health insurance industry. Biden likes to work across the aisle, and he wants to continue the legacy of Barack Obama. He wants to supplement Obamacare with a Medicare buy-in. So I would be surprised if we don't get some kind of a clash between those two.
The other obvious contrast tonight are the people flanking Sanders and Biden. They represent an obvious generational challenge. Without saying anything, just looking at Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, they're decades younger than Biden and Sanders. Pete Buttigieg is gay. Kamala Harris is black. They represent the younger, modern more diverse Democratic Party.
CORNISH: I want to talk about some of the progressives onstage. You've got Bernie Sanders, obviously Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Where do things stand after Warren's debate performance last night?
LIASSON: Well, those two are battling for the progressive lane of the party. And I think one of the most striking moments last night was when the candidates were asked if they would eliminate private health plans. Elizabeth Warren's hand shot right up. Up until now, she'd been ambiguous about how she would achieve universal coverage. She's talked about "Medicare for All" being maybe voluntarily established. But she made some news last night. Here she is on the NBC News debate.
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ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm with Bernie on Medicare for All, and let me tell you why. I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the No. 1 reasons is the cost of health care.
LIASSON: So this is an interesting tactical choice on her part. I'm with Bernie on this, she said. Doing away with private health insurance plans may be popular with the Democratic base, but it is not popular with general election voters. About 160 million people have private health insurance. But Elizabeth Warren took that risk in order not to be outflanked on her left by Sanders. Some Democrats think this could come back to haunt her if she is the nominee. And it's going to be really interesting to see tonight how Sanders responds.
CORNISH: For the lower-profile candidates, the stakes are so high - right? - to try and stand out onstage. Who has that challenge tonight?
LIASSON: Well, they all have a slightly different imperative. Pete Buttigieg has been the phenomenon of the race. But he needs to expand his appeal beyond white college-educated voters. And just as the moment he needed to do that, he had to go home to deal with the fallout from a white police officer in South Bend killing a black man. And it'll be interesting to see tonight how he deals with that.
The other candidate tonight who has a lot of potential with minority voters after New Hampshire and Iowa is Kamala Harris. She had a very strong debut. She has a charismatic personality. She's warm and strong, but she hasn't been able to state the rationale for her candidacy very clearly. She's gotten high marks for her prosecutorial abilities when she's questioning somebody in a Senate hearing room, but she's been less sure-footed when she's the one being asked the questions. So it'll be interesting to see tonight how she deals with those problems.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.