Elizabeth Warren will be the only one of the top polling Democratic candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night, giving her a chance to showcase her mastery of policy details without her main competitors available for rebuttal.
The liberal firebrand from Massachusetts has steadily risen in polls over the last two months and is drawing crowds on the campaign trail by using an expansive portfolio of proposals on a series of issues to brand herself as a candidate with a plan.
Warren has been focused on claiming the mantle of leader of the party’s progressive faction from Bernie Sanders and contrasting her plans for far-reaching changes in how the government operates with the more incrementalist approach of front-runner Joe Biden, which she has labeled “small ideas.”
Sanders and Biden and her other two main rivals, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg will debate the following night. That gives Warren a chance to stay above the fray of the debate with nine other candidates sharing the debate stage with her in Miami, all of whom have been been drawing 3 per cent or less in several recent polls.
“She has systematically worked her way up in the polls,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston. “She has all but overcome Sanders at this point. She’s got Biden in her sights.”
Marsh said Warren could lay down markers that her chief rivals feel compelled to respond to the following night, “especially with Biden and Sanders — drawing contrasts with them and calling them out on things.”
Some Warren allies say they’re concerned that the absence of other top-tier candidates on Wednesday could lead fewer voters tuning in to the first debate. But some veterans of past presidential campaigns see it as a unique opportunity.
“The first debate is always important in a presidential campaign. They tend to have a lot of viewers,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “People are trying to sort out the very large field of candidates.”
Warren held a town hall in Miami on Tuesday night, and some people in the crowd began chanting “Lock him up!” as she criticized President Donald Trump’s border policies. She quickly subdued the outbursts, saying “now, now,” and took the next question.
Speaking to reporters after the town hall, Warren laughed when asked how much pressure is on her as the front-runner in the Wednesday debate.
“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 is just not working for the rest of America,” she said. “Twenty-twenty is our chance to change that.”
After the debate, Warren plans to travel to Chicago for a few days of events before heading the following week to Nevada, which holds the third nominating contest next year.
Apart from Warren, the other four top-polling Democrats will take the stage on Thursday — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and Buttigieg. Warren has been closing in on Sanders, the 2016 runner-up, for second place and leapfrogged him in some surveys.
Warren will share the Wednesday stage with Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker, who are polling behind the top five, as well as seven candidates who are generating less that 3 per cent in most polls: Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Representative John Delaney.
The 10 candidates won’t have much time to make their cases. There will be no opening statements and they’ll be allotted 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to any follow-ups.
“You have to have a message and you have to deliver it with the little opportunity you have,” Devine said. “If there is engagement, you need to be able to respond to that — to defend yourself and reassure voters.”
Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie sought to keep expectations low in a Tuesday memo, writing that “our aim on a crowded stage is straightforward: Cory will look to introduce himself to the voters just tuning in to the race. This week’s debate is a new platform for viewers to see and ‘meet’ Cory.”
“The biggest challenge in primary field of two dozen is getting people to see and hear you,” Demissie wrote, while expressing confidence in the appeal of Booker’s vision.
Warren may take fire from some of them, most notably Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who’s running as a moderate. He has decried “socialist” policies and taken aim at Medicare for All proposals.
“Delaney will offer a clear distinction between candidates offering false promises and our campaign which is built on actual results,” his campaign manager John Davis said. “Warren and Booker have both signed on to Senator Sanders’ Medicare For All bill which would make private insurance illegal. We plan to have a discussion about that.”
Warren’s campaign declined to respond.
“There’s a top tier set and I don’t think that’ll change,” Marsh said. “What is everybody else going to do to try to get attention that night? There’s a fine line between getting attention and stunts.”