Ten of the leading Democrats competing for their party’s presidential nomination will face off in Miami on Wednesday for the first of two primetime debates that could help to clarify an enormous and unsettled field.
The back-to-back debates, which will air on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, are the first of the 2020 contest and will give the 20 candidates who qualified for the events a national platform to offer their vision for the country.
Senator Elizabeth Warren will take center stage at the opening debate on Wednesday. The Massachusetts senator, who has built momentum by releasing an ever-expanding cache of policy proposals, is the only top-tier candidate to appear in the first debate.
Warren, who held a town hall at Florida International University in Miami on Tuesday, said she was practicing speaking in “60-second soundbites” ahead of Wednesday’s debate.
Asked if she felt the pressure to perform well as the “night one frontrunner”, Warren shook her head.
“This is just a chance to be able to talk to people all across this country about how this government works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top, and it’s just not working for the rest of America,” she said. “2020 is our chance to change that.”
The others included in the lineup are the New Jersey senator Cory Booker; the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke; the former housing secretary Julián Castro; the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar; the Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; the Washington governor, Jay Inslee; the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio; and the Ohio congressman Tim Ryan.
The second night sets the stage for a more contentious debate between the two leading contenders: the former vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. They will appear alongside Senator Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The other contenders on Thursday night are the New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, the California congressman Eric Swalwell, the new age author Marianne Williamson, and the tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The sprawling field of Democratic contenders – which grew last week to 25 – is the largest and most diverse in presidential history. Biden consistently leads the field in polls. He’s trailed by Sanders and Warren, progressive firebrands who, according to recent surveys, are neck-and-neck. Rounding out the list are Harris, who had a strong start to her campaign but hasn’t taken off, and Buttigieg, who has soared from near anonymity to near the front of the pack.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that a “meme” candidate – Yang – and a bestselling author of new age self-help books – Williamson – will have a chance to make their case for the presidency while a two-term governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, and a decorated US Marine Corps veteran and three-term Massachusetts congressman, Seth Moulton, have been excluded.
To qualify, each presidential hopeful cleared a threshold set by the Democratic National Committee: they secured donations from more than 65,000 people in at least 20 states across the country and reached at least 1% in at least three separate national or early-state polls.
The process of determining who would be included was rife with controversy as candidates and activists objected to the criteria and the topics of the debates.
Bullock’s campaign has accused the DNC of employing a “secret rule change” that excludes “the only Democrat who won a Trump state”. Bullock will participate in locally televised town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire during the debates. Moulton will be in Miami, appearing in several other debates before his rivals face off.
On Tuesday, dozens of young climate activists gathered outside the DNC headquarters in Washington DC to demand a debate focused on the crisis. The DNC has declined to hold such a debate despite polling that shows combating climate change is a top priority for Democratic voters.
But the will debates offer a chance for break-out moments for candidates like O’Rourke or Booker, both of whom have strong political brands but have struggled to capture the public imagination.