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5 things to watch for in the Democratic debates

Twenty 2020 contenders will appear at the first

Twenty 2020 contenders will appear at the first Democratic presidential primary debates on Wednesday and Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. Credit: Getty Images/Drew Angerer

Twenty candidates. Five moderators. Two nights.

And perhaps just one shot to stand out in the crowded field of Democratic contenders for president.

Candidates seeking the party’s nomination will share the stage while jostling for the spotlight, appearing 10 per night on Wednesday and Thursday in Miami at the first official debates of the election cycle.

“I think it’s great to have a large field. It forces difficult choices,” Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez told MSNBC recently, adding: “I want voters to kick the tires on all of them in the primary season, fall in love with many of them — I predict you will — and then let’s fall in line behind our standard-bearer.”

Here are five things to watch for the debates:


Political experts said they expect the Democrats in their debate preparations are practicing one-liners that will resonate on social media and replay on cable TV news because they won't have enough time onstage for nuance.

“Your best shot is to create a viral moment,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic pollster and consultant. “It’s not a great way to run a railroad or to pick a president, but the reality is that with all the candidates and with the limited amount of time, you’ve got to make sure your moment lasts past the debate.”

First looks

The lower-polling, lesser-known candidates must seize the opportunity to introduce their platforms to a national audience, however succinctly, political experts said.

“It’ll be, ‘Here’s who I am, I’m introducing myself,’ because most people don’t know some of these candidates and most people aren’t tuned in this early,” said Allan Louden, chairman of Wake Forest University’s Department of Communication and a presidential debate expert.

This group may include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), both polling at or below 1 percent and less familiar to voters outside the region.

The White House hopefuls also can convey a lot onstage even as they listen or react nonverbally, Louden said.

“Their personality, their point of view seeps through,” he said. “So, these debates have value in terms of information, even if it’s not about what the person said.”

Attacks on Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner, has a political target on his back, experts said. Last week, he gave rivals an opening to attack when he reminisced about being able to work with two segregationists in the Senate with “some civility” despite mostly disagreeing.

The statement helped to make opponents’ case that Biden represents a bygone era of Democrats, but critics still need to calibrate their responses given Biden’s popularity, said Chris Galdieri, associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

“It’s potentially an opportunity for somebody,” Galdieri said. “The question is: Can you do it so that voters’ big take-away isn’t ‘the first thing I ever learned about you as a candidate is you’re attacking Joe Biden.’?”

Sanders vs. Warren

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will be on stage on different nights but could still take swipes at one another, Bannon said.

They have overlapping policy themes, especially an aggressive rejection of corporate wealth, and are seen to be competing for the same swath of progressive voters. But Warren is gaining in the polls, with a national one by Monmouth University last week showing her statistically tied with Sanders for second place as respondents' preferred candidate.

Sanders tweeted a criticism: “The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie,’ ” quoting a Politico article about the establishment warming to Warren as an alternative to Sanders.

“She’s taking some of the air out of his candidacy,” Bannon said. “Only one of them is going to survive.”


Political experts noted that past presidential debates have shown that the unexpected can — and likely will — happen on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

They cited several debate moments for the history books, including Al Gore’s repeated use of “lockbox” in a 2000 faceoff with George W. Bush to describe how he’d protect Medicare and Trump’s defending of his hand size — “I guarantee you there’s no problem” — to Marco Rubio in 2016.

“There will always be a surprise or two,” Louden said. “It’ll be fun.”

Debate prep for viewers

When: Wednesday and Thursday, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Where: Airing live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo and streaming live on NBC News’ digital platforms

Who: Candidates in the order they will appear on stage, from viewers’ left to right:

Wednesday: Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and John Delaney

Thursday: Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell

Moderators: Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd, of NBC News; Rachel Maddow of MSNBC; and José Diaz-Balart of Telemundo

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