The Democratic National Committee assigned the 20 presidential candidates for next week’s debates to the two nights by lot in hopes of avoiding the 2016 Republican bias towards candidates leading the polls. They didn’t totally succeed.
As a result, viewers will see an under-card next Wednesday night that includes only one of the current five top contenders — Sen. Elizabeth Warren — and a main event Thursday with the other four. Still, the two televised sessions could provide a major turning point in separating the contenders from the pretenders — and from one another.
Here are some things to watch:
Beto’s big chance. For weeks, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke avoided the national media, concentrating on honing his message and responses at hundreds of town halls in early primary states. But he virtually disappeared from the campaign narrative, and that cost him dearly in the polls, mitigating the buzz that greeted his entry into the race.
His performance Wednesday night will show if his strategy was smart. Besides Warren, the former El Paso congressman will be matched against at least three other early season disappointments — Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Post-debate pundits are likely to proclaim winners and losers each night.
Julian’s big chance. Even more than O’Rourke, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary seems to have disappeared in the vastness of the Democratic field. Beset by fundraising as well as polling problems, this may be his last chance to assert himself, though it is more than seven months until the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses launch the voting.
Mixed blessing for Warren. On one hand, the scheduling cost the Massachusetts senator an opportunity to confront fellow New Englander Bernie Sanders, her main rival for primacy on the Democratic left. On the other, her clarity of expression and focus on specific solutions may enable her to stand out against lesser rivals.
Best of the rest. It will be interesting to see if Booker, Klobuchar or anyone else challenges Warren, whose national poll numbers have gone up lately. Though both are reportedly well-organized in Iowa, each needs a boost to be rated as a top contender.
All eyes on Biden. As a front-runner under duress, former Vice President Joe Biden will be watched closely for how he responds to expected attacks from some rivals, both on issues and whether he is right for the times. It also provides an opportunity for him to differentiate his views from more liberal rivals.
Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have already challenged his candidacy as backward-looking. This is their chance to do it in person.
The optics could pose another challenge to Biden: Does he look his 76 years in a field where most candidates are 20 or more years younger? The contrast will be especially striking with Buttigieg, who was born while Biden was serving his second Senate term.
Challenge to the left. Though Warren won’t be present, you can bet former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will challenge Sanders’ socialism. He’s already done so, and it may help him raise his profile. A Hickenlooper-Sanders clash may spare Biden some grief — but, as the front-runner, he’ll probably get enough anyway.
Can young be too young? Buttigieg — or Mayor Pete, as he’s become known — has already shown himself to be smart, focused and precise, all qualities that should stand out in this format. Will the 37-year-old look too young to be considered presidential — or does he provide the perfect contrast to Biden, Sanders and 73-year-old President Donald Trump?
Can Kamala Harris stop waffling? After a promising start, the California senator’s campaign has plateaued, in part due to her caution in approaching controversial issues and her missteps in answering questions on Medicare for all and voting rights for prisoners.
Her recent decision to increase her investment of time and staff in Iowa is a belated recognition that a strong showing there may prove necessary for her to meet her potential in states like Nevada and South Carolina with large minority populations.
What role will Donald Trump play? Will candidates choose to spend their limited time calling for the president’s impeachment? Will they focus on Biden and other more immediate rivals? Or will they concentrate on selling their own prescriptions for the country? One reminder: History shows negative campaigning, while sometimes effective in differentiating candidates, does not play well among Iowa Democrats. Sanders’ recent criticism of Biden at a Cedar Rapids “cattle show” was greeted with virtual silence.
Who will provide the big surprise? Something unexpected always happens in presidential debates: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s inability to remember the three Cabinet agencies he wanted to scrap. Trump’s clash with moderator Megyn Kelly. Barack Obama questioning Hillary Clinton’s likability.
Post-debate punditry — and subsequent polling — will determine the winners and losers. But the latter shouldn’t fret too much; they’ll get another chance next month.