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What to expect from the 2nd Democratic debate

The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign kicked into a new gear Wednesday with the first candidate debate. A second group of 10 candidates takes the stage Thursday night. Stu Rothenberg of “Inside Elections” and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to discuss who helped themselves the most, a battle for the party's soul and future and the potential for “more fireworks” on Thursday.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For analysis of last night's debate and a preview of tonight's, Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections is back again with us. He's wearing two hats tonight. And Lisa joins us once again from Miami.

    And hello to both of you.

    So, Lisa, let's start with last night.

    Any other takeaways? My sense was, nobody was eliminated. They're all still in the running.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, it depends on who you can, Judy. I think biggest agreed-upon takeaway here on the debate site — who knows what average voters think, which is more important — but, here, the sentiment is that Julian Castro had the biggest night and may have done the most for his campaign, to get attention to who he is, get interest.

    And we saw that that actually online translated. He was the most buzzed-about candidate, people looking him up on Google. Also, Cory Booker, a lot of agreement that he did well. Elizabeth Warren was thought to have a good night, keeping kind of her firm positioning right now.

    But there are a lot of questions about Beto O'Rourke and whether he may have actually slipped a little bit. But it's hard to say. This is an arena, but I think, clearly, Julian Castro had a big night.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Stu, what's your sense of last night? Any sense that the landscape shifted?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I don't think so, Judy.

    I'm kind of between the both of you. I don't think anybody had a terrible night, though I think that Beto was — didn't do anything to enter the fray really. And I think that Castro and Booker and Warren did quite well, but, again, nothing dramatic. Nobody hit a home run. Nobody, I think, eliminated themselves. So we just go on from here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask you about this.

    Elizabeth Warren openly declared herself last, Lisa, as supporting Medicare for all, doing away with private insurance, and as you noted in your script.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    And that was a significant move. Although many voters thought that that was already her position, it is not a position that she had firmly taken yet.

    And it really was her trying say, not only do I already represent symbolically the progressive wing, but I am going to push even further on that agenda. It put the rest of the candidates, I think, who didn't raise their hand, in a difficult position of explaining a more nuanced position.

    Most of them believe ultimately they would like to get to some sort of universal health care, though they disagree on what that means, but they don't agree over how long that should take. So that was harder to explain than just the binary, I'm for it, let's change it, that Elizabeth Warren — her position that she took.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Stu, you don't think something like that shifts our — the way we read this group?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    No, I don't think so. At this point, Judy, it's introducing the candidates to see who seems knowledgeable, down to earth, personable, maybe funny, presidential.

    So, we're looking more for general qualities and characteristics, rather than a particular issue position. Believe me, people who follow health care very closely will have noticed. But, for most voters, it's a — they're taking, I think, a broader view.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, let's talk about tonight.

    First of all, what is the lineup going to look like on the stage, this — the next group of 10? Because we want to get a sense of how different this is.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's going to be very different, I think, Judy.

    Tonight, we have four of the top five candidates in polls on stage. And I want to look at the lineup, because there's also an interesting split just on the staging here. This is surely by accident, but those candidates, starting with Vice President Biden and moving to the six, all six candidates to the right of the stage are people who have served in Congress or are currently serving in Congress.

    The four on the other side of him are people who have not been in Washington, including two people who have never had any kind of political experience, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, and Marianne Williamson, who is an author and is well known for her appearances and associations with Oprah.

    So there's a real split on — that we will see in an American debate. Do we want something — someone fresh and new from outside of Washington? Do we want insiders? Because you will see that on the stage, almost like a "Family Feud"-style debate.

    Also, Judy, note that there's not a lot of geographic diversity tonight. We have five candidates that are from California and New York alone. Really, the only candidate from the middle of the country tonight is Pete Buttigieg.

    I bring this up because these things are on candidates' minds. Talking to campaigns today, like that of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, he says, I'm worried that the Democratic Party is not fighting for the middle of the country.

    And I think that will be seen on stage tonight. It's something he is going to speak to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we saw a little of that from Tim Ryan, heard a little bit of that from Tim Ryan last night, Stu.

    So what are you looking for tonight? I mean, based on what you saw last night, what are you looking for?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I'm expecting more fireworks. I think it's going to be a fascinating debate.

    I'm more energized about tonight than I actually was last night, because you have four of the five front-runners. You have got great contrasts among the front-runners. You have two 70-year-old white men, an African-American woman and a 35-year-old gay mayor.

    The contrasts are really interesting to see how they're going to talk to one another. Bernie Sanders has a reputation and a history of combativeness. And I think he, with Joe Biden, there could be — they could end up mixing it up a little bit.

    As for the second or third tier, the Gillibrand, Bennet, Hickenlooper, Swalwell, people like that, I think they're going to have a hard time getting any attention, because most of the focus is going to be on the big four in this debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, Lisa, last night, we saw the — if you will, the ones — the also-rans, the ones who aren't polling as highly on the wings of the stage, they were interjecting. They were interrupting to get themselves some airtime.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Stu is exactly right. And that was a lesson that campaign after campaign is telling me today. They feel that, if they do not interrupt, if they do not speak up, they are not going to get time.

    The average amount of time was under 10 minutes for each candidate last night. That's not a lot. And they realize that their candidates might have to be more aggressive. That includes candidates that aren't known for that stance, who are going to have to figure out how to interrupt, when maybe that's not their usual personal style.

    I also think Vice President Biden, talking with his campaign at length earlier today, hearing from them — they sort of had a gathering for reporters. And they said that he is going to talk about the future. He's not — he's not thinking about all the candidates around him, of course. He's the front-runner. But he says he is ready.

    And perhaps they sort of signal that they expect for candidates to come after him. They said they're happy for other candidates to use their time to talk about Vice President Biden. He's all about the future.

    We will see. I think other candidates can turn that on their head, like an Eric Swalwell, who will say, listen, here are candidates from the past. I am the future. Let's move to a new generation.

    So you're going to see a battle over the soul of the Democratic Party, as well as the future of the country. Vice President Biden is trying to go on the attack against President Trump. That's the soul of the country he will be fighting for, they say, as other Democrats are going to be fighting about the Democratic Party and its future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it will be interesting, Stu.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I just want to say, Judy, that, as well as I thought Elizabeth Warren did last night — and I thought she was fine — she's left out of this big mix of the top-tier candidates.

    And you wonder whether or not it will seem like the previous debate was two or three weeks ago, rather than 24 hours ago, once these people go on stage, once this group enters tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, there's a lot to watch.

  • Stu Rothenberg:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're going to keep — we're going to be watching closely. I know you are.

  • Stu Rothenberg:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stuart Rothenberg, Lisa Desjardins in Miami, thank you.

    And online right now, take a deep dive to learn more about the Democratic contenders on our new candidate page, where you can find the interviews we have done with 17 of them so far. That's of the two dozen hopefuls for the Democratic nomination.

    That is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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