Democratic debates: What the top candidates need to do

Democratic debates: What the top candidates need to do
© Getty Images

A total of 20 Democratic candidates will take to the debate stage in Miami this week — 10 each on Wednesday and Thursday evening.

But most of the focus will be on the top five candidates in the polls who have broken away from the rest of the pack.


What does each of them need to do?

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims The Memo: Scale of economic crisis sends shudders through nation The Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention MORE

One of Biden’s most important objectives is, politically speaking, to abide by the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

The former vice president has raised doubts about his standing as the front-runner with a couple of serious stumbles recently. If he were to misspeak or otherwise incite another controversy when he hits the debate stage on Thursday, it would be a huge problem.

Conversely, if he puts in a solid performance, that will quieten some of the concern.

Biden will almost certainly face questions about the two furors that have recently dogged his candidacy: his earlier support for the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, which he has now reversed; and his praise for the affability of two Southern segregationists of an earlier era, the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.).

Biden faces at least two other challenges. One is whether he can counterpunch effectively if he is criticized by his rivals. It has been seven years since Biden was last in a high-profile debate — his vice presidential clash with Republican Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE in 2012 — and the time-lag could leave him rusty.

The other task he faces is proving that he has a real vision for the nation’s future. At 76, and having been on the national political scene since the early 1970s, Biden needs to demonstrate that he is not yesterday’s man.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Hillicon Valley: T-Mobile, Sprint complete merger | Warren pushes food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees | Lawsuit accuses Zoom of improperly sharing user data Warren calls on food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees MORE (D-Mass.)

Warren is the candidate with momentum, rising in the polls and — in a couple of recent national surveys — supplanting Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Schumer: Administration 'must move heaven and earth' to implement new unemployment benefits Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search MORE (I-Vt.) to take second place behind Biden.

Clearly, Warren will be hoping to keep that momentum going with a strong performance. She, famously, has specific plans for a whole host of issues. On Tuesday, she released a new one on election security.

The Massachusetts senator is in an odd spot in the debates, however. The draw to determine who would debate on which night left her the sole member of the top five debating on the first night, Wednesday.

That introduces several unpredictable dynamics.

Will Warren gain in stature because she will be the focus of attention on Wednesday, or will she be forced onto the defensive if rivals — perhaps Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus Lawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act MORE (D-N.J.) or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — attack her, hoping to make a mark?

Similarly, she will have to judge to what extent — if at all — she should jab at top-tier rivals like Sanders and Biden, who won’t be present on the same stage and will have 24 hours to formulate a response.

The luck of the draw matters. Right now, no one knows whether it will turn out to favor or disfavor Warren.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

In polling averages, Sanders is still clinging onto second place over Warren. But his support has been basically stagnant to date and he needs to breathe new excitement into his candidacy in Miami.

Sanders is at least bringing new ideas.

On Monday, he announced a plan to eliminate all student debt — an aggregate sum currently estimated at $1.6 trillion. Sanders says this could be paid for with new taxes on Wall Street.

The proposal helps the Vermont Independent emphasize that he is to the left of Warren, his main rival for the votes of progressive Democrats. Warren proposed her own plan in April which, though ambitious, did not go nearly as far as Sanders’s.

More broadly, Sanders needs to reinvigorate his argument as to why he should be the nominee. His tendency to emphasize that he was first with ideas that other candidates have now adopted can make it seem as if he is hearkening back to 2016 rather than looking toward the future.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search Biden confirms he's considering Whitmer for VP MORE (D-Calif.)

Harris, perhaps more than any other major candidate, needs some kind of big moment on Thursday.

The California senator received positive reviews for a successful campaign launch in Oakland back in January and she scores well enough in polls to be considered a top-tier candidate.

At the same time, she has remained firmly outside the top three. She has also faced criticism for cautious, fence-sitting answers. And, in a field where the other top-tier candidates can be clearly divided into progressives (Sanders and Warren) and centrists (Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Economists fear slow pace of testing will prolong recession The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence defends response, says Trump never 'belittled' virus threat MORE), Harris’s ideological identity remains cloudy.

She could put that right on Thursday night. A former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, she is a skilled debater. 

The question is whether she can provide a rationale for her candidacy that vaults her closer to the top of the field.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D)

Buttigieg was an earlier flavor of the month during the media blitz that coincided with the launch of his campaign in April.

The 37-year-old mayor is an impressive television performer, which propelled him upwards in the polls — for a while.

Buttigieg, though, needs to find some way during the debates to connect with non-white voters.

His support so far depends heavily on upscale whites.

Frustrations among African Americans in his city burst into view at a Sunday town hall event after the fatal police shooting of Eric Logan, 54, a black man. Buttigieg was subject to passionate criticism, which didn’t do his presidential hopes any good.

Buttigieg needs to use all his considerable powers of communication and persuasion to steady his candidacy.