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 BookerCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report 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.

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Booker will debate on Wednesday night in a group that is headlined by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message 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 SandersHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' The exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn Wright HickenlooperPoll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy 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 McDanielStacey Abrams responds to RNC chairwoman: 'Concession means to say that the process was fair' GOP chairwoman says Trump raised M in Hamptons 'thanks to the unhinged mob' Trump, RNC sue to block California law requiring release of tax returns 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 BidenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message 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 TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE mocked Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move 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 HarrisHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Sanders leads Democratic field in Colorado poll MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders leads Democratic field in Colorado poll Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates 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.”