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By splitting the Democratic presidential field’s top-tier candidates into two groups and dividing them evenly across two stages for the year’s first primary debates, the Democratic National Committee had hoped to avoid a repeat of the Republican Party’s “kiddie table” spectacle of 2016.
It got a stacked deck, anyway.
The two front-runners, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, will both appear on the same night, based on the DNC’s random drawing Friday. They’ll be joined by two other major candidates, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
Only one contender from the Morning Consult poll’s latest top five, Elizabeth Warren, will appear on the other stage.
Here’s who won and who lost in the first debate draw of the Democratic primary:
Harris and Buttigieg prosper
Most candidates, if not all, had hoped to draw a lectern alongside Biden or Sanders, eager to draft off the early front-runners’ stature — and to emphasize their contrasts with them.
Harris and Buttigieg will get them both.
“Everybody wants to be on stage with the front-runners,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist.
The staging offers Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., an opportunity to make more viscerally the argument for generational change that has been at the center of his rhetoric throughout his campaign.
Harris, meanwhile, will avoid a possible clash with Warren and the prospect of playing third wheel in a fight between Warren and Biden, candidates with a history of clashing.
Appearing on the second night with four of the top five polling candidates — notably Biden and Sanders, two white men in their mid-to-late 70s — could also allow Harris, 54, to stand out as a comparatively younger woman who falls somewhere between the two ideologically. One Democratic official described it as the “goldilocks theory”: not too liberal, but given her support for “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal,” not a moderate in the Biden mold, either.
Warren’s consolation prize
By chance, Warren was left out of the debate featuring most of the other top-polling candidates — an unlucky draw, according to many Democratic strategists.
But NBC News’ decision to run her debate on the first night, when viewership is expected to be high no matter who is participating, is a consolation prize for the surging Massachusetts senator.
The first night’s stage will include former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, as well as Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. For Warren and any of those candidates, not having to contend with Biden and Sanders could give them more room to stand out.
Jesse Ferguson, a former Hillary Clinton spokesman, said that, regardless of who is on stage, the first night will attract interest from people who are just beginning to make decisions about the election.
“And this is the first debate,” he said, “so they are going to tune in.”
On the other hand, candidates debating on the second night will have had a full day to digest what their competitors said on the first night — and will have the opportunity to respond.
“I think both nights will get amazing viewership,” DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa told Fox News. “I think we’re already starting to hear, people are extremely excited about these candidates. I think they’re both very strong lineups. I think that you will also hear candidates respond to each other on various nights.”
Missing out — or mixing it up
Among the candidates who will not appear on stage with Biden or Sanders are at least two who had appeared poised to engage directly with them.
O’Rourke earlier this week had sharply rebuked Biden, saying his nomination would mark a return to the past that the country cannot afford. Former Rep. John Delaney, meanwhile, told MSNBC that he had hoped to highlight his “big contrast” with Sanders on health care.
But the Democratic primary has still been defined far more by candidates’ criticism of President Donald Trump than of any other Democrat. And to the extent that the primary is a contest to determine which candidate is best prepared to confront the Republican president in a general election, staging in a primary debate may prove less consequential.
Philippe Reines, a longtime Hillary Clinton confidant who played the role of then-candidate Trump in Clinton’s debate preparations in 2016, said that for candidates intent on drawing a contrast with Biden or Sanders, “it’s a lot easier to do if you’re on stage with them.” But for candidates trying to prove their “moxie” to confront Trump — likely in response to questions about the president posed by a moderator — the makeup of the debate stage matters little.
The debate lineup is a boon to underdog candidates such as Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, given the ratings bonanza that some expect it to be. Appearing alongside Biden and Sanders, Yang will have a chance to advocate a universal basic income, while Williamson, a spiritual guru, could appeal to the “deep thinkers” in the national TV audience with her calls for a moral and spiritual awakening.
Despite his relatively weak polling, Bill de Blasio, the 6-foot-5-inch mayor of New York City who will debate on the first night, has become a source of concern to his rivals for one reason: Nearly any candidate who stands next to him is, by comparison, going to look small.
But staging concerns are largely outside candidates’ control. The placement of candidates on each stage is expected to be based on polling and announced closer to the debate.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who stands almost 6 foot 2, said in an interview recently that he hadn’t thought of his height as an advantage.
“Now that I know height’s such a big thing,” he joked, “I might try to find some stiletto heels.”
Each of the debates will consume two hours of television. But the national media will be camped in Miami for two days, with hours of additional programming to fill.
Part of that demand will be satisfied by Trump, who is widely expected to tweet about the debates as they unfold. But the candidates who missed out on the debates have an opportunity to engage, as well.
Consider Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator who failed to qualify for the debates. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Gravel participated in early 2007 debates before being excluded from later rounds. But once he was squeezed out, Gravel held his own forums on debate nights, earning his own sliver of media attention for the effort.
This year, his campaign said on Twitter that “Mike and staff will be doing live video and text responses to the debate — in particular highlighting the odious records of many candidates and our radical platform.”
Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, recommended that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Seth Moulton, both of whom failed to qualify for the debates, travel to Miami, anyway.
“You’re going to have all the news media there in the political world, and they’re not going to have anything to cover until that evening,” Longabaugh said. “Bullock, if he plays it right, might actually get more airtime than some of the 10 people on stage.”
Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine