The Democratic presidential candidates have mostly avoided directly criticizing one another in the early stages of the 2020 primary, preferring to stick to their own positive messages.
It’s a non-confrontational approach that will be tested during this week’s debates — especially when it comes to poll-topping Joe Biden.
The two-night, 20-candidate showcase in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday is the biggest moment of the Democratic contest so far, providing a chance for frontrunners to solidify theirs and lesser-known White House hopefuls to break through on the big stage.
But it also poses a conundrum for candidates as they try to introduce — or reintroduce — themselves to a national audience, caught between extolling their virtues and answering questions about their opponents. Going negative could turn voters off, but an attack on one of their rivals might receive more notice — and distinguish them on a night when they’re competing for attention with nine other candidates.
Ramping up the pressure will be controversial comments from Biden, who last week praised the civility of former segregation-supporting senators in remarks that drew a swift rebuke from other candidates in the race, most notably Sen. Cory Booker.
“Absolutely they are going to swipe at him,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “They’ve flirted with it up to this point.”
But attacking a former vice president that remains widely popular among Democrats carries plenty of risk, particularly for candidates who are seeking to make a first impression to voters.
“I would never say any other candidate’s name but my own,” said Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “In a 10-way race, you don’t go negative. And in a debate you don’t go negative. You use the time trying to acquaint the voters with who you are and what you believe.”
Biden figures to be a focus of both nights, because of both of his frontrunner status and recent controversies. National and early-state polls have consistently found Biden comfortably leading the rest of the Democratic field since he entered the race in April, and he’s already proven to be among the most prolific fundraisers in the race.
Biden’s rivals, however, will hope to slow his momentum after he touted how he was once able to work with a pair of senators in the 1970s who strongly supported racial segregation, James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.
In his remarks during a fundraiser, Biden recalled how Eastland used to call him “son” instead of “boy.”
That drew Booker’s ire, and the senator from New Jersey called on Biden to apologize for showing insensitivity to African-Americans. Several other candidates followed Booker’s lead in criticizing Biden. But the former vice president refused to back down and instead fired back that Booker should apologize to him.
Booker and Biden won’t share a debate stage, however. Biden will appear during Thursday night’s debate, alongside Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Silicon Valley businessman Andrew Yang, and self-help author Marienne Williamson will also join them.
Wednesday’s debate will feature Booker, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, former Reps. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and John Delaney of Maryland, Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro.
Four of the five leaders in most public surveys — Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, and Sanders — will appear on stage together Thursday. Of the top five candidates in polling, only Warren will appear Wednesday.
Critics of the debate format have said that the presence of so many candidates on stage will make it difficult for any of them to stand out, especially given that each candidate will likely receive only a few minutes of total time to talk.
“It’s hard to imagine that there will be some dramatic moment,” said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic pollster. “The one with Biden has the most possibility because there may be various candidates in that debate who try to confront him.”
It’s unclear how Biden would respond to such confrontations, but strategists urged him to ignore provocations and make a positive case about what he plans to do as president.
“For Biden, the key to success is not getting caught up in the back and forth. … The worst thing you can do if you are the frontrunner is not act like the frontrunner,” Seawright said. “He has to be clear on his policy agenda no matter what the other candidates say.”
It might be good advice for his rivals, too.
“Democrats want to do things: They want to be inspired, and they want to beat Donald Trump,” Messina said. “You gotta make your case on both those things.”
Adam Wollner contributed to this story