Debate Night: All eyes on Warren as 2020 Dems meet for first showdown

Ten candidates will be in the spotlight Wednesday night as the first round of Democratic presidential nomination debates kicks off in Miami, but it’s the White House hopeful standing center stage who likely will grab the most attention.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s enjoying a steady rise in the polls the past two months, as the populist champion from Massachusetts has dished out one progressive policy proposal after another. And this showdown gives the senator and experienced debater an opportunity to build upon her recent success, before a national audience.

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At the same time, it creates the opportunity for a breakout star should one of her lower-polling rivals steal the spotlight. And with some of the bigger names headlining Thursday's debate, the set-up deprives Warren of the opportunity to challenge front-runners like Joe Biden directly.

But ahead of the first debate, Warren appeared to be focusing on amplifying her criticism of President Trump -- giving a hint of her debate-stage approach Wednesday night, when she may try and avoid tangling with primary rivals in favor of hitting the commander-in-chief.

At a town hall in Miami on Tuesday, the very vocal Trump critic slammed the president for vowing “great and overwhelming force” should Iran attack “anything American.”

“He has created a crisis that has taken our country to the brink of war,” Warren emphasized. “He has not made us safer. He has made the United States more at risk. He’s made the Middle East more dangerous. He has made the entire world a more dangerous place.”

Warren also made headlines hours before the debate, protesting outside a facility in nearby Homestead where some 2,300 migrant children are being held.

"This is not what we should be doing," she argued.

Taking aim at the president's illegal immigration detention policies, Warren said that "these children pose no threat to people here in the United States and yet they are locked up for weeks, for months, because our government is following a policy of inflicting maximum pain."

Those comments on immigration and Iran may just be a preview of what Warren plans for her first debate performance.

Joining Warren on the stage tonight – Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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Longtime Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons pointed to “at least three real candidates on the stage the first night: Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker. I think each one of them has a chance to do some things to distinguish themselves.”

And he sees an advantage for the White House hopefuls in the first night’s debate, which will be absent the two top-polling candidates – former Vice President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“I think the benefit of being in that night is you don’t have to worry about the Biden and Bernie storyline,” added Simmons, a presidential campaign veteran. “I think there’s going to be an opportunity to try to get a personal connection and not worry about taking down anybody. I think the benefit of the first night is you don’t have to go after anybody. You can tell your own story.”

Seven months after the Democratic nomination battle ignited, and with seven months to go until the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Democratic National Committee chair and Fox News contributor Donna Brazile said the first round of debates, hosted by NBC News, will see some candidates “get out of the so-called box.”

But Brazile, speaking on Fox News' ‘America’s Newsroom,’ warned that for others in the record-setting field of nearly two-dozen contenders, the debate will “prove maybe this is not their time.”

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Regardless of what’s occurred so far on the campaign trail, veteran Democratic consultant and communications strategist Lynda Tran characterized the debates as a reset.

“I would look at the debates this week for each of them — whether they are leading the pack or rounding out the bottom of the polls — as their first, best opportunity to introduce or reintroduce themselves to the largest audience of Democratic primary voters yet rather than see the stage as their last chance to stand out from the crowd,” said Tran, a founding partner of the political and communications shop 270 Strategies.

Brevity is not often a trait perfected by politicians, but time will be a precious commodity for the candidates on the stage Wednesday.

The contenders will have 60 seconds to answer questions from the moderators and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups. There will be no opening statements, with only closing remarks for the candidates to give a condensed version of their stump speeches. The two-hour debates will each have five segments separated by four commercial breaks. Each candidate will likely grab seven to 10 minutes of speaking time.

“It’s a little bit of exaggeration calling it a debate,” Biden joked earlier this month while campaigning in Iowa. “It's like a lightning round.”

The scarcity of time may lead some of the lower-tier candidates to fire away in hopes of capturing the spotlight.

“Some of the candidates lower in the polls may want to force sound bites and come out swinging, but it’s going to be tough for anyone hitting the debate stage for their first time to do so in a way that doesn’t come across as staged (pun intended) and inauthentic,” Tran warned.

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One of those candidates is Delaney, who declared his candidacy nearly two years ago.

He described the debate as “a huge opportunity.”

And Delaney predicted that “what’s going to happen is that the American people are going to see a few new candidates that they haven’t seen as much of and after they watch the debate they’re going to say ‘some of these people are really good including Delaney.’”

But the centrist candidate, who’s not shy about blasting rivals he feels are too far to the left, promised that “I’m going to talk about how some of these people are running on pie in the sky ideas or impossible promises and I have real plans … yeah, I’m going to call out some of these ideas which don’t make any sense.”