Fight night: Democrats set to take the stage for first debate

MIAMI — It’s fight night in Miami.

Most of the 20 contenders who qualified for the first Democratic presidential debates — set to take place over the next two nights — have arrived ahead of Wednesday's forum, which represents the first major inflection point in the Democratic primary contest.

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 (N.J.) flew in late Tuesday night on an economy class flight. He spent most of the trip with earphones in and glasses pushed down on his nose, quietly studying a black folio of debate preparation materials.


Booker will debate on Wednesday night in a group that is headlined by 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 (Mass.), who did a walk through of the Adrienne Arsht Center of the Performing Arts in downtown Miami earlier in the day.

There has already been some sparring among candidates, with 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.) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment enters new crucial phase Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections MORE making competing remarks about socialism.

Hickenlooper walked through the spin room here at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, an opulent three-story auditorium where hundreds of media figures are gathered in a makeshift press center, telling reporters that embracing socialism will be a surefire general election loser for Democrats.

“The word socialism by itself has a lot of baggage in this country and especially in swing states … it’s not a winning solution and I continue to say you don’t need massive government expansion to change this country," he said.

As Hickenlooper made those remarks, Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was in an adjacent room giving an interview to MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, in which he said that he’ll make the case to voters that socialism shouldn’t be viewed as outside the mainstream.

“I’ll take care of the label, first by telling the American people what I believe,” Sanders said.

“To me, what democratic socialism is about is saying health care is a human right. If you work 40 hours a week you should earn a living wage. Education is a human right, and by the way, we’re going to have a tax system that is fair … we are going to ask the wealthiest and large corporations to pay their fair share and start paying taxes.”

Sanders and Hickenlooper will share the debate stage Thursday night.

Several of the 2020 contenders have walked through the Ziff Ballet Opera House for interviews with NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, who are sponsoring this debate.

The opposition is also here — Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDanielRonna Romney McDanielRepublicans knock Dem after video appears to show him watching golf at impeachment hearing GOP, Trump campaign rip CNN for coverage of Horowitz hearing Trump campaign: Democrats pursuing impeachment because they don't have 'viable' 2020 candidate MORE has been walking around the debate grounds, making the case that Democrats have embraced extremism.

There is potential for the forum to turn nasty, particularly tomorrow night, when Sanders will be on stage with 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, the front-runner in the race.

But Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE said he’s not worried about the potential for the debate to devolve into ugliness.

“We’re going to talk about the issues,” Perez told reporters from the floor of the spin room. “There will be nobody talking about hand size. There will be nobody talking about silly nicknames for their opponents, we’ll leave that to the Republicans.”

During a 2016 presidential debate, 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 mocked Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform Tom Hanks weighs in on primary: 'Anybody can become president' GOP senator blocks bill aimed at preventing Russia election meddling MORE (R-Fla.), saying that he has small hands.

Perez said he expects the 2020 Democrats are largely on the same page but will litigate their differences over policy proposals without getting personal or nasty.

“I think people want to know what do you stand for, what are you going to fight for and will you fight for the issues that matter to me and can you defeat Donald Trump,” Perez said. “Those are the basic issues that voters are going to analyze, that alignment of values and how they square up … people will look for their values and look for evidence of who can take the fight to Donald Trump.” 

Ten Democrats will debate on Wednesday night, led by Warren, Booker and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). There are more top contenders grouped into the Thursday night debate, which will feature  Biden, Sanders and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate New poll finds Sanders surging to within 7 points of Biden in South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals Buttigieg: I share a lot of the same values as people protesting my fundraisers MORE.

The debate stage was set at random and Perez pushed back on the idea that one night has more star wattage than the other.

“Not in the least,” Perez said. “This is a great field of candidates, you look at the polling and Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is effectively tied for second place. We have a deep bench of candidates and this is the sixth mile of the marathon, and who is going to win the marathon? I have no idea.”