It was a messy and imperfect road getting here. But the first debate of 2020, scheduled for Jan. 14 (but with impeachment, who knows?), may finally provide us with the contenders — and only those contenders — who have a shot at the Democratic presidential nomination: former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).

Thanks to both a minimum number of required campaign contributors (225,000), which eliminates self-funding billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and a higher poll requirement (5 percent in four polls or 7 percent in two early-state polls), which eliminates Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, Democratic voters will not be distracted by contenders with little hope of winning the nomination.

Although it remains possible that all five “finalists” could collapse, thereby leaving a path for Bloomberg or a non-politician, the likely Democratic nominee will be a former vice president, a Midwestern mayor or one of three senators. They all have a track record of public service, possess the intelligence and character to serve honorably, and would be a vast improvement over President Trump. But that does not mean each has an equal shot at the nomination, an equal chance to beat Trump or an equal ability to edge our politics away from dysfunction, hysteria and cynicism. They certainly have not run equally effective campaigns.

Starting with Biden, it is hard to call a former vice president leading in the polls an underdog, but thanks to media coverage dismissive of the real views of most Democrats, one would think he has come back from the political dead. In fact, he has steadily held the lead for several reasons: He has a deep reservoir of respect in the party; he remains the only candidate who has resonated with a substantial share of African Americans; he fits ideologically within the mainstream of the party (with the capacity to draw from every ideological subset); and he has a deep understanding of both inside-the-Beltway politics and policy. Biden begins 2020 as he began his campaign: A front-runner, but not a dominating one.

Although Biden and Buttigieg are ideologically quite similar, the contrast between them is vast, especially when it comes to age, experience and verbal acuity. Buttigieg has run an extraordinary race, perhaps unprecedented in its success in lifting an unknown to the top tier of a presidential primary. Given the gap between where he started and where he now stands, one has to acknowledge that he has run the best campaign of any contender. The question remains whether he is this year’s Gary Hart (a wonky technocrat beaten by a former vice president) or Barack Obama (a super-skilled newcomer who felled a quintessential insider). Buttigieg begins 2020 as a top-tier candidate whose biggest question is not whether a gay president is viable but whether he can win the support of African American voters.

If Buttigieg has run the best campaign, Warren has run the most inconsistent. She began with a misstep — her unnecessary foray into DNA testing — and then soared with a tightly constructed message, a fount of policy proposals and remarkable work ethic. Next came the great unraveling in October, when her miscalculation in embracing Medicare-for-all (never central to her agenda) came back to haunt her. Her opponents pounced on her slipperiness over funding, forcing her to produce an eye-popping and controversial revenue plan that, in turn, prompted her to retreat to an implementation plan that looked more like those of moderates she once ridiculed than the Sanders plan that she tried to imitate. The year ended with her hypocritical sniping over Buttigieg’s fundraising methods and a downturn in her own numbers. Warren begins 2020 still in the top tier but in decline at precisely the wrong time.

Warren’s task is made more difficult by Sanders’s resurgence. He remains the darling of the most progressive Democrats, actually boosted by a heart attack that wound up humanizing him and intensifying his supporters’ devotion. His take-no-prisoners and make-no-compromises attitude gives him the highest floor and lowest ceiling of any candidate in the top five. His durability causes pundits to muse about an inconclusive primary and contested convention (which, remarkably, would not be the weirdest thing to happen in politics in the past four years). Sanders begins 2020 as an improbable nominee for an election that Democrats are desperate to win, although as spoiler for Warren, he ironically might be an asset for those rooting for a moderate.

Rounding out the final five, Klobuchar has run the steadiest race with the most consistent message. She is the moderate that Democrats need to beat Trump and to attain progressive gains. She has a substantial upside but a major problem: She needs Biden to falter and voters to conclude that the jump for Buttigieg from mayor to president is too big. In this month’s debate, she went on offense, saying how she would cut Buttigieg down to size, but unfortunately her fine performance coincided with Biden’s strongest outing. Klobuchar begins 2020 as the female candidate of the six who began the race with the greatest chance to win the nomination — one more surprise in a race that remains thoroughly unpredictable.

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