Underdog Democrats hope for breakout moment in first debates

Underdog Democrats hope for breakout moment in first debates
© Greg Nash

Democratic presidential hopefuls outside the top-tier contenders will face a high-stakes test of their political staying power when they take the stage this week for the first round of debates.

For those who have yet to break out in the Democratic nominating contest, the debates on Wednesday and Thursday mark the best opportunity so far to stand out in a pack of more than 20 candidates and build much-needed momentum on the national stage.

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With that in mind, candidates are gaming out their debate performances, honing their introductions to voters and plotting ways to achieve the kind of made-for-social-media moment that could boost their national profile.

“I would view a successful night as people basically saying, ‘Hey, there’s a few other people for us to focus on,’ ” John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events MORE, a former Maryland congressman who’s running for president, said in an interview on Tuesday. “That’s about all you can ask for.”

Delaney is among more than a dozen presidential hopefuls hoping to parlay a standout debate performance into success on the campaign trail. He’s slated to take the stage on Wednesday, alongside Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE (D-Mass.), who has seen her political stock rise in recent weeks.

In preparation for the debate, Delaney said he has been reviewing his policy positions and campaign talking points, but has largely eschewed frequent mock debates with his staff.

“There are going to be 10 people on the stage. You’re going to get a few questions, and you don’t know what they’re going to be,” he said. “You’ve got to live in the moment. You can’t be too programmed.”

If the debates bring opportunity for lesser-known candidates, they also come with challenges.

With 10 people taking the stage each night, candidates will have as little as six minutes to address the audience. Meanwhile, lesser-known hopefuls will have to compete for attention with top-tier candidates like former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Reject National Defense Authorization Act, save Yemen instead MORE (I-Vt.), who are polling at the top of the pack and are both set to debate on Thursday night.

Mark Longabaugh, a top adviser to Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that candidates will have to impress on several fronts.

“You have to look like you’re in command of your faction, you have to look presidential and, if you can, you have to get off a good line or two to have a moment,” he said.

Democratic strategists warned lower-tier candidates are tasked with walking a fine line between trying to stand out and swiping at their opponents, something that became a hallmark of the crowded 2016 Republican debates.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, said that there’s a clear risk that comes with attacking those in the top tier: It alienates voters who like those candidates.

“If you go really negative, people are going to remember you and they’re not going to like you,” Dean said. “These people are at the top of the polls because people like them.”

Instead, strategists are advising candidates to distinguish themselves from their fellow candidates through delving deep into their own policies and campaign platforms.

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“They need to really explain what is their vision for the nation. This a time to veer away from the standard Democratic talking points,” Deshundra Jefferson, a former Democratic National Committee official, told The Hill.

“I really don’t think those lower tier candidates should come out swinging. Again, they may get their 15 minutes of fame, they may get a great sound bite or a viral moment, but it still doesn’t answer the question to voters,” she said. “If these people are flawed, what is your case? What makes you better? And that’s what I think people really need to hear.”

The strategy already appears to have worked for Warren, whose campaign got off to a slow start earlier this year but is now climbing in the polls.

Instead of focusing on lashing out at other Democratic contenders, like fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in particular, Warren has employed a policy-heavy approach in setting herself apart from the rest of the field.

“I don’t expect any of them to attack anyone personally. I could be wrong,” Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, said.

“I think that would backfire. I think they need to draw distinctions but bring it in a way that is powerful and empowering and inspirational and challenging the country to do better, as opposed to bringing someone down,” he continued.

One person whom the candidates are guaranteed to take aim at during the debates is President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE.

Despite the general election being more than a year away, strategists say the primary debates are the best place for candidates to start comparing themselves to the president in their effort to introduce themselves to voters.

“Voters are still looking for who can really best beat Trump,” Jefferson said. “They’ve got to compare and contrast themselves against Trump. What can they do better? What are they bringing to the field? Why can this person beat Trump?”

While candidates like Biden and Sanders are preparing for criticism on the debate stage, Dean said there may be a silver lining for the lesser-known candidates, recalling his early primary debates in 2003 when he was considered the presidential front-runner.

“We were basically playing defense the whole time, because all the candidates, the moderators were going after me,” he said. “The lesser-known candidates aren’t going to have to worry about that.”

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE (D-N.J.) is among the candidates looking to break out in the primary contest. In a memo sent to reporters on Tuesday, Addisu Demissie, Booker’s campaign manager, laid out the argument that most voters are only just starting to pay attention to the presidential race and “aren’t making final decisions seven months from an election.”

“Our aim on a crowded stage is straightforward: Cory will look to introduce himself to the voters just tuning in to the race,” Demissie wrote. “This week’s debate is a new platform for viewers to see and ‘meet’ Cory.”