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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

A Viewer's Guide to the Democratic Debates

From Bernie and Biden to Warren and Williamson, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination begins for real on Wednesday evening -- the first of two consecutive nights of nationally televised, speed dating debates featuring 20 contenders among the vast field of wannabes.

Both events will be broadcast and live streamed by NBC and by Telemundo from 6-8 p.m. PDT.

Plenty of free parking.

For two hours tonight and tomorrow, two panels of ten candidates each will woo voters by answering questions from celebrity news personalities, each hoping to be the one who will emerge a year from now as their party’s challenger to the cruelty, greed, misogyny, narcissism, racism, sociopathology and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s presidency of toxic nationalism.

Let us pray.

A few key questions. At post time, there were an even two dozen entries in the Democratic pack, at least a handful of who might actually win.

As our old friends Mark Barabak and Michael Finnegan over at the Los Angeles Times explained:

There are several reasons for the exceedingly large field: Changes to the nominating process — which all but eliminated the gate-keeping role of the major political parties — and the advent of social media have made it much easier to wage at least a semiserious run for president.

There is little downside to entering and losing the contest (unless you think a lucrative cable-TV gig is slumming it) and plenty of incentive to run in 2020, with polls suggesting President Trump is highly vulnerable.

Here are five key questions to help frame the debate among and between the 20 who made the party's first cut:

How will Biden withstand scrutiny? Former Vice President Joe Biden is leading every poll to date, running on the very simple message that: a) beyond any and all ideological concerns, the Democrats’ singular mission must be to defeat Trump and b) he is best positioned to get that job done.

As an old, white, establishment male with a long record filled with political baggage, however, his low-profile campaign has been beset by controversy in recent weeks – over abortion rights, climate policy and race, among other things – that call into question his suitability to lead Democrats at a time when many in the party are moving leftward, so his Thursday night debate appearance provides a crucial first test of his abilities in the political free-fire zone.

Can Bernie recapture the liberal mantle from Warren? As Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont vie to emerge as the chief left-liberal foil to Biden, she has been the hottest candidate in the field in recent weeks, her climb in the polls fueled by an ever-expanding platform of substantive, progressive policy ideas captured in her “I’ve got a plan for that” campaign slogan.

By luck of the draw, Warren will have top billing on Wednesday night’s debate stage while Sanders will appear alongside Biden on Thursday, giving him an opening to challenge the front-runner directly, in a way that could reignite the enthusiasm he excited among the party’s left wing in 2016, while also blunting her momentum in liberal precincts.

Will Kamala re-emerge? California Senator Kamala Harris had the strongest campaign kickoff of any contender, but the energy quickly dissipated, not only because of progressive attacks on her record as a prosecutor, but also due to her own habitual and irksome attempt to have it both ways on every issue.

If biography and viral moments (viz. her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) were all that counted, Harris would be the front-runner, but her twin talents for equivocation and vacillation have fed a narrative that the only core convictions she possesses are in behalf of her own ambition and personal advancement.

Can Beto and/or Mayor Pete regain their mojo? Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who became famous for narrowly losing a U.S. Senate race to Democratic bogeyman Ted Cruz, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a gay millennial multi-lingual military veteran with splendid presentation skills, both shined for brief periods as bright shiny objects played up by the national political media.

While Mayor Pete has been battered at home in recent days over the shooting of an African-American citizen by a white cop, and Beto (who won the endorsement of SB Representative and former housemate Salud Carbajal this week) has been bashed for lacking substance, the debates give both a fresh chance to reboot with plenty of time left.

Who will be the X factor? From spiritualist Marianne Williamson to half the rest of the Democrats in Congress, state and local government, the remaining single-digit hopefuls in the field will do their best to craft a memorable moment of prime time political performance art that will send them soaring in the polls and top-of-mind for party voters, perhaps even aided by Trump, who’s threatened to live tweet the debates.

A week before Independence Day may seem too early to start paying attention to next year’s presidential race, but it’s barely seven months before voting starts in Iowa. And, let’s face it, the stakes could not be higher.

Here is Newsmakers' special Follow-the-Democratic-Campaign Resource Kit:

  1. A useful calendar of key campaign events.

  2. A comprehensive guide to where the Democratic candidates stand on the issues.

  3. Vox is a great source of clearly written, substantive coverage about every aspect of the race, from a left-of-center perspective.

  4. Five Thirty Eight has all the polling info you could ever want.

  5. The New York Times asked all the candidates the same 18 questions. For some reason, Biden wouldn’t answer.

  6. A fascinating poll of which candidates voters wish would drop out already.

  7. And finally, our favorite campaign tool of all, the NYT’s Debate Bingo Card.

Images: The NYT's campaign watch party tool; Newsmakers loves horse race coverage; Joe Biden; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Vox); Kamala Harris questions Brett Kavanaugh; Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke (New York Magazine); Marianne Williamson (Wiklipedia).

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