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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A Democratic debate, or a slugfest?

8 things to watch for as 20 candidates aim to stand out in crowded 2020 field.

The debate stage during the MSNBC Democratic Candidates

The debate stage during the MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate at the University of New Hampshire on Feb. 4, 2016 in Durham, New Hampshire. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

The biggest presidential debate lollapalooza in U.S. history kicks off Wednesday in Miami.

Two nights, 20 candidates (of a record 24), not enough airtime for them all.

A field this big spawns a multitude of questions.

Will anyone tune in?

A whopping 82 percent of Democratic voters in last week’s USA Today/Suffolk University poll said they would watch the debates. The previous record field, the 17 Republicans in the 2016 race, drew their largest TV audience for their first debate. And the urgency Democrats feel to take down President Donald Trump is like the urgency Republicans felt to stop Hillary Clinton. So, yeah, this will draw a crowd.

Will Joe Biden have another Biden moment?

The front-runner’s fond memories about working with segregationists in Congress were just his latest bout with foot-in-mouth disease. If his next episode doesn’t come in Miami, it’ll come during July’s debate in Detroit or in September’s installment, or somewhere on the trail. He’s a master of the self-inflicted wound. But given his emotiveness, it cuts both ways. In unscripted moments, like a debate, Biden also can be very good.

Does Elizabeth Warren have a plan for winning her night?

Of course. But beating expectations could be tough. She’s expected to dominate the less-than-stellar Wednesday field (top foes: Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar). Warren is having a moment in the polls, as they say, and no one on the de facto kiddie-table stage can match her policy chops. But her star might be dimmed by the lack of perceived equals among the lilliputians to her left and mostly right.

Will Kamala and the Killer Bs suck all the oxygen out of the room on Thursday?

That lineup for night No. 2 has four of the top five contenders — Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. That could be trouble for branded names struggling to break through, like Kirsten Gillibrand and John Hickenlooper. The party has tried hard to play fair after accusations it was anything but in 2016, but it’s human nature to gravitate to the stars. In the first GOP debate in 2015, Trump in particular as well as Jeb Bush got significantly more TV time than their eight opponents.

How much will Trump dominate the debate?

Not much, if Democratic voters get their way. In the USA Today poll, Trump finished eighth among concerns they want addressed. But they won’t get their way. Trump plans to live-tweet each night, and that’s going to keep some of the spotlight trained on him, especially if he’s in full insult-heavy election mode.

Will moderators establish a good flow?

This might be like speed dating, but viewers won’t be comparing policy minutiae. On this first go-round, they want to take the measure of each candidate. Is she reasonable? Is he capable? Is her heart in the right place? Can he think on his feet? The candidates need to fully answer questions, but I’d love each one to be on a chess clock — when their total time is up, the mic goes off.

Who gets Big Mo?

That’s the goal, after all. The crowded lower tier (Booker, O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, et al.) wants desperately to break out of that scrum and move toward the top tier. Each of the four in the upper pack not named Biden want to emerge as his principal challenger. That should lead to candidates trying to draw bright contrasts with their presumed rivals, which should yield some sharp exchanges. And that could provide momentum for a breakout. On that note . . .

Will everyone resist the temptation to judge the first debate as definitive?

No one can focus on 24 candidates. The whittling down will come in earnest in September, when debate qualifications literally get twice as hard. But in 2015, Rick Perry left the GOP race after the first debate. Scott Walker hit the road after the second.

Remember also: That first GOP debate was Trump’s national debut, and he was rude, crude . . . and popular.

Nothing was the same again.

 Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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