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  • Writer's pictureLarry Ceisler

Principal's Perspective: Expert Advice for the Dem Debates

While the 2020 election is nearly a year-and-a-half away, the presidential campaigns have already ramped up. This Wednesday and Thursday (June 26 and 27), the Democrats will hold two debates, each with 10 candidates.

I’ll be watching with interest. My hunch is that you will as well.

I’ll state in advance that with 20 candidates jostling for position on the stage over two days, it will be a challenge for any of them, particularly the longshots, to make much of an impression. For most, there are really two goals:

  • Try to be the candidate who comes up with the memorable one-liner. You want to be the person who voices the phrase that resonates and that people will be repeating the next day.

  • Don’t make a verbal blunder. We all remember Rick Perry’s “oops moment” in a 2016 Republican debate. You must avoid becoming that man or woman who’s unable to marshal the facts or remember your lines.

I’m hoping that the candidates don’t spend the two nights simply bashing President Trump. That’s the obvious position for them. It’s smarter for them to show that they’re nimble and quick. The question isn’t what they think of the president; the question is how each one might react if he or she ends up on the same stage as him next year.

Of course, everyone in these early debates has a bit of a different objective. For Joe Biden, the goal is to show that he’s the nice, calming influence. And the former vice president – who has been through a lot of campaigns – has to be careful not to fall into his history of making blunders or getting baited into saying something he’ll regret.

Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders will both appear on the second debate night (Thursday, June 27). They’ll be joined by two other candidates who are currently polling well, Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Mayor Pete has to show substance. He’s young, and looks younger, but comes off as knowledgeable. He needs to display exactly what he’s knowledgeable about. In some ways, he reminds me of when Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 accentuating intelligence and competence more than specifics. Like Carter, Buttigieg talks about his faith. And, like Carter, he’s got the military background.

Right now, Biden is leading among African-American voters. Senators Harris and Cory Booker need to contend for that vote, as does Sanders. But Bernie has never shown an ability to do that.

Bernie’s real challenge is to avoid looking or behaving like the old guy in the room. He’s lost ground recently to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and hopes to use this opportunity to re-establish himself as a favorite of the left-leaning Democrats.

Warren is the only candidate currently polling among the top five who will appear on the first debate night (Wednesday, June 26). She has shown herself to be a substantive issue-oriented candidate – but I’m interested to see how she’s able to explain her concepts in the short time period that the format allows.

The question each candidate has to wrestle with is, who are you talking to? Will they use this nationally televised platform to speak to voters across the spectrum? Or will they aim their message at party activists – the small population of voters they think are likely to show up for the Iowa caucuses?

Beyond that, it will be fascinating to see if one of the longshot candidates is able to break out of the pack. And with this many men and women vying for attention, attrition could start quickly.

Three candidates I think have a chance to emerge with strong performances are Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Currently, they’re all in Joe Biden’s lane – they need to distinguish themselves from him, and from each other.

I’ll be paying close attention. This is going to be a long journey and, if you’re like me, you’ll find it compelling.


Larry Ceisler is the founder and Principal of Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy.


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