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Which candidates are most likely to take a risk in 1st Democratic debate?

In Miami, a crowded stage is set for the first debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. With Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts the only participant polling in double digits, many candidates see the event as a public debut to Democratic voters, 84% of whom haven't yet chosen a candidate, according to polls. Lisa Desjardins and Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections join Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Florida is once again the epicenter of American politics. The time has come for Democratic presidential hopefuls to debate and try to stand out.

    Our Lisa Desjardins is there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In Miami, the very crowded stage is set, with spots for 10 candidates tonight. Another 10 will be here tomorrow. In tonight's face-off, just one candidate on the stage is polling in double-digits, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

    As we reported earlier, she spent part of her debate day observing a temporary shelter for migrant children in Homestead, Florida.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    My message to this little girl is that she is not alone, that we are here with her, and we will fight alongside her, that she has to be brave, that we all have to be brave.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Several other candidates visited or plan to visit Homestead this week while nearby for the debates, as immigration has become a resonant issue in the 2020 fight.

    For many of these, Democrats, tonight's two hours in prime time is their first, best chance to introduce themselves to a national audience. Progressive Warren will be joined center stage by former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke and fellow Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

    Klobuchar has carved out a space in the field as a centrist, appealing to moderate voters wary of President Trump. That's a role shared tonight by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney.

  • Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.:

    What the American people need to hear from us tonight is how we're actually going to get some things done.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also on stage tonight, some candidates who have centered on a single issue, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who wanted an entire debate on climate change, and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran who focuses on decreasing U.S. involvement overseas.

    The final two candidates on stage tonight, late entrant into the race New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who is looking for a post-debate bounce.

  • Julian Castro:

    Beginning with tonight, as my name I.D. goes up, I'm confident you're going to see my support go up in the polls.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Many voters are still up for grabs. According to a "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll released earlier this month, 84 percent of Democrats have not made up their mind about which candidate to support. That's a question we asked people in Miami.

  • Tamia Sutherland:

    I don't have a specific candidate that I know for sure I'm supporting right now. I'm really interested in Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris. I think Mayor Pete is interesting. I definitely have more research to do.

  • Man:

    For me, I want to hear from, like, the other guys that you don't hear — don't get as much airtime.

  • Mike Palmer:

    It's going to be interesting to see how the cream of the crop raises to the top after the — after the debates, before the primary.

  • Shereen Abousaouira:

    Does definitely seem like more women that are running for office. Like, that's so important.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One thing Democratic voters are looking for? Someone who can beat President Trump.

  • Mike Palmer:

    I think, if they can't be Donald Trump, we may have another four years of whatever goes on in his head.

  • Woman:

    Anybody but him.

  • Shereen Abousaouira:

    Anyone but him.

  • Woman:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president didn't weigh in on the Democratic field today as he left the White House for a summit in Japan. But he plans to respond to the debate in real time on Twitter.

    And the Republican Party is sending Trump campaign surrogates out to react on the airwaves in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Twenty candidates qualified for the first round of debates.

    Some of the others who didn't make the cut are still trying to get noticed today. Montana Governor Steve Bullock had the first caucus state of Iowa all to himself.

  • Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont.:

    I won't be on the debate stage tonight, so I'm introducing myself here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    While Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton traveled to Miami anyway and launched his first television ad.

    Tonight's showdown is just round one. Most of the highest-polling candidates will be watching on the sidelines, before stepping onto the debate stage tomorrow. That includes former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, as well as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now, along with Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections.

    Hello to both of you.

    And, Lisa, I'm going to come to you first, because I understand you can show us a lineup of what the candidates are going to look like, in what order, on the stage. And, as you talk about this, tell us what the candidates themselves think they need to do tonight.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Well, first of all, this is where I am, is the media center. This is an entire theater devoted just to the media. The debate is across the street from us. That debate stage will be very full, as you say, Judy.

    And let's look at this lineup, because I think it's going to tell us something about the nature of this debate. This debate stage tonight is actually the more diverse of the two debates. We have more women and people of color on the debate stage tonight.

    But something else I want to point out, Judy, if you look at the — there is Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker. Those are the candidates leading in the polls, and that's not an accident. The Democrats wanted to have the candidates ahead in the polls closer to one another, either for engagement or for visual reasons.

    And then you see the rest of the candidates on stage beside them. I raise this for a couple of reasons, Judy. Those candidates who are on the sides already are trying to fight for national attention as it is, and they have to sort of do more in a way, because, visually, they're literally on the side of the stage.

    One other note about this lineup tonight, Judy, you look at it, it is more diverse than tomorrow night, except in one way. Tonight, we have seven candidates who either currently or formerly have been members of Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huh.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So it's going to be interesting to see how they kind of conduct themselves. And is there a congressional kind of lawmaker type of feel to tonight's debate that we may not see tomorrow night?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu, as you look at these — and you have been watching debates for a long time — what do some of these candidates need to do tonight?

    Let's talk about the front-runners first. I mean, Elizabeth Warren doing well so far in the public opinion polls, but what does she and candidates like Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke need to do?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, in this race, Elizabeth Warren really is the top-tier candidate, and the others are second or third or fourth tier.

    So, there are — you're right, exactly right. They have to accomplish different things.

    I think Elizabeth Warren needs to look and sound presidential, but she needs to connect with people very personally, to show how well she has been doing, to talk about her public policy proposals, and to really connect with individuals.

    The candidates who are in the second and third tier, as you mentioned in the second tier, just on the basis of the polls, Judy, Klobuchar, Booker, for example, Beto, they need to somehow say something and do something that is memorable.

    And, really, even the other candidates, they need to — they need to come out of this debate with people talking about them, remembering them, and wanting to hear more about them, because, look, it's hard to sell yourself in a debate like this, when you only have a limited number of minutes.

    So they need to — they need to say something that's interesting, funny, thoughtful, to get more attention in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa, we mentioned you have been talking to all — a number of these campaigns. What are they telling you that they feel they have to do?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think Stu hit on a lot of it.

    I think one of the difficult needles to thread tonight will be from candidates who have — and we have many of them on stage tonight — who have branded themselves on the issue of civility and on being nice.

    Now, this could lead to a very good and thought-provoking debate. But if they're trying to do something memorable, someone like Cory Booker or someone like Amy Klobuchar, who sort of have branded themselves in this nice way, they're going to have to do it on a memorable line that is also positive.

    Each candidate tonight, many of these campaigns have told me, they have had to make internal decisions: Do they want their candidates to ever interrupt? Do they want their candidates to even throw a slight jab?

    The consensus from campaigns tonight and tomorrow night are that they think tomorrow night's is likely to be the more contentious debate. The issue is that some of these leading candidates, they don't want to make a mistake. The other candidates would rather take a risk and get national attention. So it's going to be a real test.

    Also, Judy, I think we will see another division. Some candidates tonight, I have learned from this campaign, are going to lead with policies. Amy Klobuchar, for example, she's going to talk about the first 100 days, very likely.

    Other candidates, like a Beto O'Rourke, will probably lead with passion and a drive to change. It is going to be a very different in tone between candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu, speaking of that, how much real difference is there among these candidates on the issues? I know we sometimes lump them into the more moderate vs. the more progressive, the more liberal.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what are the — how much difference…

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, that's the broad-brush difference. I mean, there are no conservatives in this race, in the Democratic Party anymore. There used to be, but there aren't anymore.

    But there are some differences on Medicare, for example, and single-payer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Health care.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    They have some differences on health care. On environment, there are some differences, on fracking and the like. So there are differences.

    But, Judy, you don't get those kind of differences in debates like this normally, because some of these people are just introducing themselves to the voters. It's about my background, what's unique that I bring to the race, Beto, the charisma, the energy and the youthfulness.

    So, yes, people will talk about policy, Klobuchar. Warren has been talking about policy in great detail the past few weeks. But for many of the candidates, policy can be boring. They want to excite people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, having said that, Lisa, some of these candidates, like Maryland Congressman — former Congressman John Delaney, has gotten very little attention in this race. And yet he's making his moderate positions, you know, sort of the theme of the reason he's running.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    And someone like John Delaney, I also expect him to talk about what a workhorse he has been on the campaign trail. He's more well-known in Iowa than he is in the rest of the country, because he has spent a lot of time there doing the work of campaigning. That's kind of a populist message that we could see from someone like that.

    I think it is going to be interesting to see, again, what the sides of the stage, how they try to raise themselves, as there's obviously going to be a battle for the central position. And does Elizabeth Warren bring any criticism tonight, because she really is the top contender available tonight for them to go after?

    It's unclear to me that this will happen. This may in fact be a nice, thoughtful debate. We will see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Absolutely, Stu. I mean, we will see how much they go after each other and how much they seek to distinguish themselves.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    That's right, and how much they go — the nine go after Elizabeth Warren, who is clearly the front-runner in this race.

    And does anybody take shots at people who are not in this debate? Because the cloud hanging over this debate is Joe Biden in the next debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well ahead in the polls, doing best in the polls against President Trump. But he's not on the stage.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    No, he's not on the stage, but everybody knows that he's the front-runner in the race, and everybody wants to compete against him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu Rothenberg and Lisa Desjardins in Miami, thank you.

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