10 Candidates, 2 Coloradans And 1 Presidential Debate Stage. What To Watch For

June 27, 2019
Photo: 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary Debate Stage
Members of the media gather for a walk-through of the stage set-up for the first democratic debate, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

Rejoice denizens of Mountain Time, the Democratic presidential debates are well scheduled for our zone. The candidates will be on the stage from 7 - 9 p.m. MT, which means you can tune in after dinner and still get to bed in time to dream about all these talking heads. You can watch on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. 

Where To Find The Coloradans

Conveniently for Colorado politics nerds, both of the state’s hopefuls are on the stage Thursday night. With 10 wildly ambitious people up there, you might have a bit of trouble picking them out of the crowd though.

Look for former Gov. John Hickenlooper at far stage right, between self-help author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Sen. Michael Bennet will be in the same spot on stage left, flanked by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Rep. Eric Swalwell.  

What’s At Stake For Them

For candidates like Hickenlooper and Bennet, who’ve been polling around 1 percent and have low national name recognition (to say the least), this is their best chance yet to introduce themselves to a national audience, especially outside of the early primary states where they’ve been spending most of their time.

“It wouldn't be impossible for someone who's polling at one or 2 percent right now to actually rise up and really challenge the front runners. Probably the worst thing would be to do nothing and to simply be not noticed,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

Masket noted that lackluster performance in the first debate will make it hard to attract the higher poll numbers and larger number of donors needed for candidates to stay in the debates long term. However, with 10 candidates all trying to make their mark in just two hours, the campaigns are realistic about how hard it will be for anyone to stand out.

“It's just such a small window of opportunity,” said Hickenlooper’s communications director, Lauren Hitt. “It's going to be at most, one person who really hits hit out of the park at the debate that's able to get that break they need, to use that line they prepared or to run that play they've been thinking." 

So even if Colorado’s candidates don’t land their breakout moment tonight, expect them to keep on plugging away on the road to the second debate in Detroit at the end of July.

How They’ve Been Getting Ready

Debate rules limit candidates to one-minute responses, a restriction that may be especially hard for Hickenlooper and Bennet, neither of whom are known for being concise. Bennet said he’s been trying to figure out how to boil complex policy points down to their “essential components.”

Both candidates have also been working to develop talking points on the vast array of issues they might get hit with.

“It's totally unpredictable what's actually gonna happen,” Bennet said, “because you don't know what the other people on the stage are gonna do and you don't know what the journalists are gonna do. So you gotta be just very well prepared, I think.”

The wide-open nature of this debate has turned the last few weeks into a cram session for both candidates.

“There's a lot of information that's going to have squeeze into my head,” Hickenlooper said. “You're expected to be ready for, pretty much, incoming coming from any direction.”

To make sure their candidates are ready for anything, both campaigns have rounded up staff and volunteers to play the roles of moderators and fellow-debaters for long rehearsal sessions. How well those preparations match reality will be one big question Thursday night.

What They Might Focus On

Both men have painted themselves as moderates in a race marked by some far-left firebrands. But at times, those moderate messages have themselves become pretty fiery.

Hickenlooper recently dialed up a Twitter beef with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over the question of whether the Democratic Party should embrace socialism. In a speech at the National Press Club, Hickenlooper warned, “Socialism is the most efficient attack line Republicans can use against Democrats as long as Trump is at the top of the ticket.” 

Sanders responded on Twitter with a clip of Franklin Roosevelt.

Both men will be on the stage Thursday night, and Hickenlooper said he isn’t backing away from criticizing socialism but doesn’t intend to make it personal.

“I'm going to say that loudly and clearly when it comes up, and I think it will, but it doesn't have to be an attack on anybody — we just disagree,” Hickenlooper said.

Bennet’s message lately has lined up with his newly published book, “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics.” He’s focused on dysfunction in Washington and his moral opposition to the Trump presidency. In response to this situation, he thinks voters want to hear a big-picture vision of how candidates plan to tackle big problems.

“It's not just that we've been unresponsive to the needs of the American people. We're doing nothing to try to address the challenges that they face, and I think that's what we should be focused on during the debate,” Bennet said.

If You Miss It

Don’t worry, we get to do this all over again for the second Democratic debate in Detroit, July 30 and 31. And yes, both Hicklooper and Bennet are likely to make the stage.