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What To Expect From the 1st 2020 Primary Debate


The first 2020 primary debate is tomorrow, and Thursday night in Miami, 20 candidates will be there. And some will be trying to introduce themselves to voters. Others will try to elbow the competition. NPR's Mara Liasson has the story.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The first debate gives the 2020 Democratic candidates a chance to answer the question that's at the top of Democratic voters' minds this year - how will they beat Donald Trump? Each one of them has a self-serving answer. Here's Joe Biden in his native state of Pennsylvania.


JOE BIDEN: Quite frankly, folks, if I'm going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it's going to happen here.

LIASSON: At the same time, says Kamala Harris, don't take the Democratic base for granted.


KAMALA HARRIS: Too often, their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit.

LIASSON: Or, says South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Democrats can try to win back swing voters.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's very clear that there are a lot of people who voted for Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Mike Pence and me.

LIASSON: But all the Democratic candidates really have just one bottom line message - nominate me, and I can beat him.


BERNIE SANDERS: Every poll that I've seen suggests that we are ahead of Trump, and I think that is the correct way to go forward.

LIASSON: That was Bernie Sanders, one of the big-name candidates that will be onstage in Miami. But the majority of Democrats are polling in the low single digits. For them, says Democratic strategist Karen Finney, the debate offers a chance to be seen for the first time.

KAREN FINNEY: It's very fluid. This will be, for most of these candidates, their first real opportunity to be introduced on the national stage. And someone may strike lightning. That's what you're looking for. That's what you want. You want to be able to have a bounce.

LIASSON: For those candidates, the debate is like a reality TV show, a chance to stay on the island, because the bar to qualify for the fall debates is even higher. Candidates will need to show many more donations and higher poll ratings. Each night in Miami will have its own dynamic.

Tomorrow, as a result of a random drawing, Elizabeth Warren will be center stage, flanked by Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker and seven others. On Thursday, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will stand in the middle - next to them, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and six others. That's when Democratic strategist Joe Trippi expects to see some fireworks.

JOE TRIPPI: You've got 20 people, 19 of which are going to, for the most part, pivot off of Joe Biden. I just mean that he's the whole central focal point of the election now.

LIASSON: Biden is the front-runner, and right now, the fight is to determine who will emerge as his competitor.

TRIPPI: I think that actually helps him. If he keeps sort of being the center, Democrats who are running or - who are they positioning against? Biden. Who's Trump positioning against? Biden. Where's that put him? In the middle.

LIASSON: Whether it's Pete Buttigieg making a generational challenge to Biden or Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren making an ideological contrast, for now, Biden is the bull's-eye. And Biden just made all their jobs a lot easier with his recent gaffe, praising bipartisanship by invoking the names of segregationists he worked with in the Senate way back in the 1970s. With that, Karen Finney says, Biden managed to raise the stakes for himself.

FINNEY: This self-inflicted wound means this topic will most certainly be a question in the debate. If that had not happened - and here we are, talking about, you know, Iran - that foreign policy is an area where the vice president has - you know, there's a real stature gap.

LIASSON: And Biden may have to fight to regain that stature. Still, Finney says, attacking one candidate in a large debate is always risky.

FINNEY: This is the moment to show people that you could be the commander in chief. You have to show that you've got ideas, you've got command of the issues - would be foolhardy to waste time on the attack when time is so precious.

LIASSON: And time is the thing that makes gaming out a debate strategy so hard. Candidates will have just 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to follow up. There will be closing remarks, but no opening statements. And everyone may not survive to the next debate. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.