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 BookerOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Booker hits back at Trump tweet, mocks misspelling of name 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 WarrenNew poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' 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 SandersOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (I-Vt.) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Republicans uncomfortably playing defense 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 McDanielTrump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Trump campaign blasts 'phony' Harris after Biden names her VP Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle 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 BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' 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 TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE mocked Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Lincoln Project expands GOP target list, winning Trump ire 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 HarrisCandidates on Biden's VP list were asked what they thought Trump would nickname them as part of process: report Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Election security advocates see strong ally in Harris MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention 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.”