What to expect from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders during tonight’s debate

"I'm not against anyone," said Warren. "Bernie and I have been friends forever."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing with governors to discuses ways to stabilize health insurance markets​, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders during a 2017 hearing with governors to discuss ways to stabilize health insurance markets​ in Washington. –Jose Luis Magana / AP

For the first time Tuesday night, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will appear together in a Democratic primary debate.

The two progressive icons will share center stage during the CNN debate in Detroit, as they bid for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. The question is whether Sanders and Warren will be “facing off” against each other – as some pre-debate media coverage has suggested – or united in their defense against the eight other, more moderate candidates on stage.

The politicians’ campaigns have foreshadowed that it will be the latter.

“I’m not against anyone,” Warren told reporters Monday in Toledo, Ohio. “Bernie and I have been friends forever.”

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Added Warren: “I’m going to talk about my plans to make this America work, not just for a thin slice at the top, but make it work for everyone.”

Ari Rabin-Havt, the chief of staff for the Sanders campaign, told CNN last week that the media was trying “to create the idea of an Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders battle that doesn’t exist.”

New York Magazine reported last month that the two New England senators agreed – before their campaigns even began – to not directly attack each other on the 2020 trail, in the interest of advancing their shared critique of the influence corporate interests have on American society and democracy. According to Politico, Sanders has made it clear to staffers that he does not condone attacks on Warren.

“Elizabeth is a friend of mine and we’re going to run, I hope, what are simply issue-oriented campaigns,” Sanders said in a CNN interview last month, after a tweet from his account was perceived by some as a shot at Warren.

They do have some nuanced differences – both in politics and policy. Sanders has long-identified as a democratic socialist, while Warren says she believes in capitalism.

And during the 2020 campaign,Warren made a splash in April with her proposal to eliminate up to $50,000 in student debt for those with an annual household income of $100,000; Sanders, meanwhile, unveiled a plan to cancel all student debt, with no eligibility requirements or threshold.

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On affordable housing, Warren has proposed a bill calling for more government-backed construction and less restrictive zoning rules to bring down the cost of renting or buying a home. Sanders also wants more government funding for low-income housing, but says the onus should be on developers, rather than government zoning laws. They also have differing stances on the Senate filibuster, voting rights for incarcerated citizens, and, potentially, expanding the Supreme Court.

Both candidates support transitioning U.S. health insurance to a Medicare-for-All system. But while Sanders has made that proposal a centerpiece of his campaign, Warren – whose penchant for having plans, and lots of them, has inspired a campaign slogan – has yet to put forward her own health care proposal, although she has aligned herself on the subject with her friend and ally from Vermont.

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare-for-All,” the Massachusetts senator said during the first Democratic debates last month.

That statement could stand for most issues. In general, both Sanders and Warren support broad redistributive programs aimed at helping the middle and lower class, funded by a more progressive tax code.

However, their ambitious agendas could be subject to attacks from third parties Tuesday night.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; and self-help author Marianne Williamson are also in the first debate Tuesday night. All hold generally more moderate, if not centrist, views than Sanders and Warren.

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And as Sen. Kamala Harris proved after the first round of debates last month, aggressive debate strategy can result in a campaign boost, particularly when its target is the perceived frontrunner. Behind former Vice President Joe Biden, recent state and national polls have shown Warren and Sanders (and Harris, who will debate Wednesday night) as the next-most prominent candidates in the top tier.

On Tuesday night, the candidates in danger of not qualifying for the next round of debates – which have higher polling and fundraising thresholds – could be desperate to capitalize on what might otherwise be their last major, national appearance.

For one, Delaney has not been shy about his campaign’s strategy of calling out Warren and Sanders for, as he characterized it, making “false promises.” Hickenlooper, who has targeted Sanders during his campaign, even directly tweeted at Warren on Monday, claiming that his record showed “you don’t need big, expensive government programs to achieve progressive goals.”

“Let’s talk about it tomorrow night,” he added.