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The first debate is early and big

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Eleanor Clift


Monday, June 10, 2019

We are just weeks away from the first of 20 Democratic debates scheduled this primary season. It gets underway over two nights in Miami on June 26 and 27, and never before has there been a debate this early in the election and potentially this important.

The reason there are so many candidates, 23 at last count, is they think President Trump is vulnerable. And they’re right judging by the numbers. His job approval nationally hovers around 40 percent, and his numbers in key states are even worse. He is beatable.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the frontrunner by more than 16 points over Bernie Sanders. Several candidates considered top-tier contenders are still in single digits in national polls. Elizabeth Warren just recently broke into double digits.

The twenty candidates with highest poll and donation ratings will be split into 10 on each night, where they hope to have a break through moment. With that many candidates, getting enough air time will be a struggle in itself, but here’s what to watch for.

First, Biden, will he solidify his frontrunner status? Will he emerge unscathed? How will the other candidates treat him? Will they take pokes at him, or do they want to be his running mate should he prevail? Does he come across as a seasoned, confident pro, or is he a bit rusty? How Biden does is paramount in assessing the first debate.

Second, how the candidates advance their proposals and distinguish themselves will begin to separate the pack from each other. Climate change has emerged as a key issue that motivates Democrats, especially millennials, who will inherit a planet that is threatened by manmade pollution. Can Washington State Governor Jay Inslee maintain his hold on this issue that is central to his campaign, or can Biden wrestle it away with a newly released plan that goes further than anything President Obama tried to do.

Third, personality is key. Being able to look directly into the camera and answer a question, or explain a proposal, or project empathy, is how we judge the quality of a leader. Most of the 20 candidates are unknown, and they may not get enough air time to make an impression. But then again, they might. And in the multiple clips that will be aired over the subsequent days, voters will begin to know the contenders.

Fourth, there are the zingers. “I knew Jack Kennedy, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” is how Democrat Lloyd Bentsen demolished Republican Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. Every candidate will go into the debate well-rehearsed and with a zinger or two to unfurl if the moment is right.

Lastly, so much has changed since Trump got elected. Our politics has gotten coarser and nastier, and Trump has pushed the boundaries of civil discourse beyond where anybody could have imagined, boasting he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote.

How has this changed climate affected the Democrats? Will they be holding each other to higher standards, counting on a pendulum effect with the public craving to restore dignity to the White House?

The two frontrunners are the most practiced when it comes to the debate stage. Sanders stood across from Hillary Clinton numerous times in 2016, though not nearly as many times as he wished given the Democratic National Committee’s tightly controlled schedule. That backfired, creating a sense of grievance among Sanders voters that the DNC sought to correct this time with its expansive schedule.

Biden was judged the winner when he debated Republican vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan in 2012 and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008. He’s an old hand at the debate stage along with everything else that he’s done in his 30 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. This is his third campaign for president, and the first time it’s his to lose.

Washington Merry-Go-Round, the nation’s longest running column, presents today’s events in historical perspective. Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift are veteran commentators.


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