Arnon Mishkin: Two debates, twenty Democrats -- here’s what to expect

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, the top 20 (yes, 20) Democratic hopefuls will appear for the first debates of the campaign. For the current second tier, this may represent an opportunity for them to break out from a pack whose sheer size – and intense national schedule – makes this year more challenging for what we might charitably call campaign “asterisks.” For the front runners and top tier challengers, these nights represent real risks of a blooper that could derail any of them, or an opportunity to address – directly – issues that have been raised about them.

The “card” for each night features ten candidates for two hours – with a panel of five NBC moderators. To limit size, the moderators will tag team, so each hour will have thirteen people on stage.

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I reviewed each of the candidates to determine what they must do – or avoid doing – given the large audience that is likely to be watching:

Night 1: The most prominent candidate on Night 1 is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, currently running third or second. With Vermont Senator, and fellow progressive, Bernie Sanders not on stage until Night 2, this is a great opportunity for Warren to highlight the range of policy plans she is proposing and try to solidify her strength among the substantial left wing of the party. The moderators will try to get her to attack either Sanders or former Vice President Joe Biden. My bet is she’ll avoid that, and just focus on getting her message out.

Biden, despite his well-deserved reputation for gaffes, is a good debater.

The podium arrangement calls for Warren to be flanked by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Booker got some good publicity this week, when he was able to attack former Vice President Joe Biden, but with Biden scheduled for Night 2, he needs to figure out a way to achieve a breakout moment, without his foil standing there. At the same time, O’Rourke needs to try to recapture the magic that he had during his 2018 “almost” campaign for the Senate. This night represents a real opportunity for O’Rourke, as he’s only up against one truly ‘top tier’ candidate of the race (Warren).

The other, currently ‘also-ran’ folks on Night 1 need to seek some kind of viral moment, or statement. For Minnesota Senator Amy Klobucher, it could be an attack on Warren’s progressive agenda, as a way to demonstrate her centrist bona-fides. For Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, or New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, it’s likely to focus on attacking Warren as not being sufficiently progressive, or for not opposing Trump aggressively enough. For Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose campaign focus has been Climate Change, it could represent an evening to focus on that, and hope that he gets sufficient attention, given the absence of many of the big name candidates.

My bet is that the news coming out of the first night will focus on how well Warren performs, with one or two soundbites from the others on stage. Those others need to plan to make sure they’re one of those selected “bites.”

Night 2, featuring four of the top five candidates, is likely to get more coverage, and thus presents both more opportunity – and risk – for those four.

Biden, despite his well-deserved reputation for gaffes, is a good debater. In the 2012 campaign, the Republicans were gaining after Obama’s bad performance in the first debate, but Biden’s aggressive performance against GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan helped stanch Obama’s bleeding. But he has had a challenging few days, with the controversy over his remarks about his friendship with several southern segregationists in the U.S. Senate, and continued questions about his age. To date, his campaign has focused on trying to unite the Democratic moderate and progressive wings, with his focus on an anti-Trump message. Will he seek to maintain that focus – and embrace his professed ability to reach out across the aisle – and will he be able to beat back likely attacks from either Sanders or California Senator Kamala Harris.

Sanders’ challenge is to keep his lead among the furthest left in the party, particularly in the face of recent Warren momentum. In 2016, against Hillary Clinton, he was easily able to represent the more progressive ranks of the party. But with Warren feeding a stream of detailed progressive plans, that’s harder. His opportunity on Thursday is to articulate the rationale for his approach – and to embrace his “Democratic Socialist” positioning and solidify his support among the progressives. Unfortunately for Sanders – and also probably for NBC’s ratings – the random candidate selection prevented what could have been a white-hot Sanders vs. Warren face-off.

The two non-politicians, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and bestselling author and speaker Marianne Williamson, will try to leverage their non-politician status.

Harris has often slipped in unscripted settings, but she continues to be formidable in fund raising. She needs to demonstrate her ability, and seek to capture the center of the party electorate, which is where she has historically been strong. Standing close to Biden and Sanders, she has an opportunity to try to attack Sanders for positions she feels are too progressive, and attack Biden for being too accommodating and naïve with Republicans.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has always done well in live settings. He is coming off a challenging week: he had to leave the campaign trail amid a crisis caused by a South Bend policeman killing a 54-year-old black man. He sought to assuage angry black residents and address the problem. Polls, and previous South Bend history, suggest he has a challenge among black voters, which he can try to address in his appearance. But every crisis can also be an opportunity – and Buttigieg can use his Thursday appearance (particularly if he’s lucky enough to be attacked by one of the others on stage) to demonstrate his ability to handle other types of crises, despite just being the mayor of a small town.

Elsewhere on stage, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet and Governor John Hickenlooper need to figure out a way to distinguish themselves and look to find an issue, soundbite, or verbal attack that will allow them to stand out from the pack. Each of them entered with some expectation that they could be the surprising dark horse of the race, but none has yet met those expectations.

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Finally, the two non-politicians, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and bestselling author and speaker Marianne Williamson, will try to leverage their non-politician status – Yang likely by focusing on his guaranteed minimum income, and Williamson on her pledge to seek reparations for slavery.

My bet for both nights: While the also-rans will seek attention, their sheer volume will enable each of the top front runners to maintain their status, and the race will continue to be a five-way campaign among Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg.

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