​First Democratic Debate: When Is It and What to Watch for

The first Republican debate was held on Aug. 6 on Fox News. It still holds the record for the biggest cable news audience with 24 million viewers.

The first Democratic debate was on Oct. 13 on CNN. It garnered 15.3 million viewers.

Debate strategy 101: There’s little incentive for the leading candidates — i.e., those at the center of the debate stage — to take shots at one another. Most early debates are civil. Snubs and slights are usually more implicit than explicit. When voting nears, attacks sharpen.

Comments like “All of us on this stage would be a better president than Trump” might be more common than Democrat-on-Democrat rhetorical violence. Most of these candidates are unknown to millions of voters. Do they want their introduction to be them attacking a fellow Democrat?

[Who’s running for president in 2020? Here’s our candidate tracker.]

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the polling leader among this debate’s participants, will not be onstage with her rival for the most progressive voters, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, or with the candidate with whom she has had the sharpest policy disagreements, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden. (They are part of Thursday night’s debate.) She could stick to targeting Mr. Trump, but it would be telling about her mind-set if she chooses to draw contrasts with a Democratic rival.

One prominent candidate she will be standing next to, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, has made a “revival of civic grace” his calling card, which hardly presages an attack-dog role. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas representative, is also not typically an aggressor.

Other candidates, who may be hard-pressed to qualify for debates later in the year, have more incentive. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York or former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, running far back in the 24-candidate pack, try to create a breakout moment with an aggressive jab?

Remember the very first question of the very first debate for the top Republican presidential candidates four years ago? They were asked to raise their hands if they would pledge to support the eventual nominee. Everyone did — except for Mr. Trump.

That gimmick — “We know how much you love hand-raising questions,” conceded the moderator Bret Baier — set the tone for a raucous debate season to follow.

Do NBC’s hosts have such a question up their sleeves? Campaigns are brainstorming to prepare for such a snap-judgment moment that could be one of the more powerful visual takeaways of the debate.

Among the potential questions that could be a raise-your-hand moment: Do you think President Trump should be impeached? Is Mr. Trump a racist? Should prisoners have the right to vote? Should Mr. Trump be prosecuted after leaving office? Should the entire 2017 Trump tax bill be repealed?

[18 questions. 21 Democratic candidates. Here’s what they said.]

Many of the Democrats running are unknown to much of the country. They will be trying to make positive, memorable impressions. The biggest hope of all: to vault themselves into the top tier of 2020 candidates.

It is a challenging feat on a crowded stage when you have limited time to speak. But it is possible to break out of a lower tier. Just ask Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. In the 2016 presidential primary campaign she was relegated to an “undercard” debate for lower-polling Republican candidates in the first round, but broke through and later landed on the main stage.

“I always had a set of points — not 20; four or five — that I needed to make in the course of the debate,” she said in an interview. “If you know what those are and you are in the moment, then you are looking for the moment when you can make that point.”

But, she cautioned, “No one is going to dominate the airwaves like Donald Trump did and does. So don’t try.”

Among Democrats paying close attention at this early stage of the 2020 race, Ms. Warren has established herself as the candidate with “a plan for that.” Her campaign is selling T-shirts with that tagline, and she is expected to use her debate time making that case to the biggest audience yet.

But while Ms. Warren has outlined plans for everything from a new tax on the assets of the wealthy to ending private prisons, her rivals may challenge the feasibility of her big agenda. Watch Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who began her campaign with promise and is looking for a spot in that top tier; she has made the practicability of her agenda a selling point. An early plan of hers: $1 trillion on infrastructure.

Some 2020 hopefuls were worried about Mr. O’Rourke last year as he mulled a presidential bid following his surprisingly competitive challenge to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.

But since entering the race, Mr. O’Rourke has struggled to gain traction in the crowded Democratic presidential field, especially as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has seen his star rise.

The first debate offers a prime opportunity for Mr. O’Rourke to try to rebound. Yet in his Senate campaign, he sometimes struggled to turn his campaign trail oratory and energy into sharp, tight answers on the debate stage.

Still, he is one of the few 2020 candidates who has a track record of creating viral moments. The first debate will test his ability to generate those as a presidential contender.

The timing of the debate only heightens its potential financial impact. It comes days before the critical end-of-quarter June fund-raising deadline that most campaigns have already been flogging their supporter lists about. Strategists on past presidential efforts said that in addition to debate days bringing in a massive new audience of potential supporters and donors, a strong showing can re-energize and engage their existing email list.

It is likely that the best performers will bring in many weeks’ worth of donations in the final days of June, which, even without the debate, would be one of the busiest moments of the year.

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