ground game

The Democratic debates begin tonight. Here’s what to watch for

Workers assemble the television set inside the media filing center at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections will take place in Miami, Fla.
Workers assemble the television set inside the media filing center at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections will take place in Miami, Fla.Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty Images

When Democrats convene in Miami this week for their first debates of the primary, the 20 people on stage will make up the most diverse field of candidates for president in history.

Beyond the range of ages, races, genders, backgrounds, and ideologies, the stage will feature a “Who’s who” of US politics — as well as a “Who’s that?” of the ever-growing field.

Here’s how it’s going to work: Starting at 9 on each night, 10 candidates will debate for two hours (minus four commercial breaks). Each will be given 60 seconds to respond to a question and 30 seconds for a follow-up answer. There are no opening statements, but there will be closing statements. And the debates will be available to watch on television and via livestream.


However, the official hosts — the Democratic National Committee, NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo — did not create two equal nights in terms of the primary’s heavyweights. (The DNC says the nights were set via a random draw of sorts.)

On Wednesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will be the only candidate on stage who frequently receives double digits in polls. She’ll be joined by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, among others.

Thursday’s debate includes another 10 candidates, including former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Kamala Harris of California.

But although the second evening includes more of the party’s front-runners, the first debate will begin to tell voters — and the candidates — a lot about how the rest of this crowded primary season will shake out. Here’s a guide on what to watch on opening night:

The tone of the first 10 minutes. It’s been a pretty friendly affair for the first seven months of the presidential primary as Democratic candidates have avoided going negative on each other for the most part. But there’s been some notable tension in the last week: Booker and Biden called on each other to apologize, and Sanders attacked Warren as a tool for centrist Democrats.


Neither of those pairs will be on the same stage. But those rumblings mean that some candidates may be ready to pick a fight — regardless of who else is on the stage — as a way of getting noticed in a field of more than two dozen contenders.

That’s why the first 10 minutes of the debate will give a sense about whether the campaign has shifted into a new, more negative phase. Remember: The first Republican debate in 2016 kicked off with Trump being the only candidate on stage who said he might not support the party’s eventual nominee — followed by an inquiry from Megyn Kelly about Trump’s demeaning comments on women. Those contentious exchanges set the tone for the entire season of debates.

Welcome to the Warren show. Warren enters the week with the most momentum of any 2020 Democratic candidate, and some polls even show her taking second place in early nominating states. But her top competition — Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg — won’t be on stage until the next evening.

That means the first night is set up to give a major spotlight to the Cambridge Democrat, and it will be interesting to see how she takes advantage of it. Yes, she’s garnered a reputation as the candidate with a detailed plan for just about everything, but more importantly for this week, her proposals are well-tailored to the party’s liberal base. And that’s exactly who will be watching these early debates, leaving not a lot of room for her competition to criticize her.


What’s more, it’s hard to see how her competitors on Wednesday’s stage go after her. Not only is there some risk (Warren, who won a college scholarship for the debate team, is a proven force behind the podium), but also she doesn’t have contentious relationships with the other contenders on stage. To compare, she has previously tussled with Biden on banking.

So, what about Biden? The race’s front-runner won’t be on the stage until Thursday, but no doubt he will loom over the performance Wednesday as everyone’s foil. What is less obvious is whether candidates will use precious debate time to attack him or to promote themselves. Booker is the most likely to do this after their exchange last week, although he hasn’t brought up the issue in recent days.

Attempts to nail that viral moment. Look out for this scenario: A candidate will get a question about, say, tariffs, and will reply with an articulate yet impassioned speech about another topic entirely. But hey, wasn’t that delivery impressive?

Let’s remember that it’s a summer evening many months before the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, so even some die-hard Democrats won’t be watching the debate. But afterward, they will check their inboxes and Facebook feeds, and they’ll have no choice but to see each candidate’s selected highlights.


Candidates know this, and, as a result, will likely be looking for an opportunity to have viral moment with reverberations beyond this week. Buttigieg, for example, entered the top tier with a such a moment on CNN, which set up a beneficial cycle of more media, more money raised, and more name recognition.

Some of the candidates need this viral boost to jump-start their campaigns (Booker, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and former US housing secretary Julian Castro). For others, the stakes are higher: de Blasio, Representatives Tim Ryan of Ohio, and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii might not qualify for the next round of debates if they don’t see an uptick in polling.

And, as the first hour passes, there will be even more incentive not to wait for the right question, but instead to deliver their web-honed, clip-ready speech, and then send it to more people on Facebook than watched the debate in the first place.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp