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Debate prep for the viewers: What to watch for as the Democratic candidates take the stage

By S.E. Cupp, Tribune Content Agency on

The first of the 2020 Democratic debates are upon us. With two installments over two nights, featuring some candidates many Americans likely haven't ever heard of, the performances are intended to whittle the field, but may only overwhelm and confuse voters further. Whoever emerges better off or worse, we'll leave with some important takeaways.

Here's what I'm watching for:

Joe Biden

2008 Biden was scrappy -- he fought for every supporter, and did the same for Obama when named his running mate. He gave a feisty debate performance against a surprisingly formidable Sarah Palin. 2020 Biden seems rusty, or worse, entitled. He's done little media, held few public events save for fundraisers, and has lashed out at an opponent who asked him to apologize for racially insensitive comments he made. "Apologize for what?" he demanded. "Cory [Booker] should apologize. He knows better."

If he takes that attitude to the debates -- that he doesn't need to defend his record or his words to the American people -- it will be a bad night for Biden.

We'll also get to see whether Biden does in fact intend to run as a moderate. Will he distinguish himself from the rest of the progressives by plainly critiquing their more impractical ideas like the Green New Deal, abolishing ICE and forgiving student debt? Or will he use the night to boost his progressive bona fides, to prove he's not a throwback candidate?

 

Risks: He's the front runner, which already comes with a massive target. His recent errors, from flipping on the Hyde Amendment to his racially charged comments, only give his opponents more ammo.

Pete Buttigieg

After a rough couple weeks, Mayor Pete's star-turned campaign has been slightly deflated. A police shooting stoking racial tensions at home has challenged the South Bend mayor, who trails Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren at 7 percent in the latest Morning Consult poll. In this debate, he'll need to convince voters he's more than just a small-town mayor -- and more than just a media phenomenon.

Risks: He's playing with the big dogs now, and his "aw, shucks" earnestness might come off as naive next to more seasoned senators who are used to fighting dirty.

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