Wednesday night’s 2020 Democratic debate will showcase another round of 10 candidates, with former Vice President Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris taking center stage—literally.
CNN’s lineup for the second night of this month’s debates, from left to right, is Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Biden, Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Biden and Harris, Wednesday night’s front-runners, will be right in the middle.
“There is a physical and structural advantage to being in the center, but there’s also a psychological advantage,” longtime political consultant and Ampersand Strategies founder Josh Nanberg told Fortune. “If you’re at a Thanksgiving table, all the good food is in the middle and you don’t want to be stuck with the green beans at the end, hoping for a piece of turkey.”
Those at the peripherals will be grasping for a moment to shine. With the qualification thresholds rising for the next round of debates, the lower-tier candidates will have to fight more than ever to make their mark.
“Michael Bennet is a serious guy, but he has not been taken seriously in this campaign,” said Nanberg. De Blasio, too, will have to “come out fighting” to prove he belongs on stage, he added, while Gillibrand and Inslee will have to show they’re not just single-issue candidates.
“I think it’s a break-out opportunity for Governor Inslee,” said Nanberg. “If he only talks about the environment during the time he has, no matter what the question is… that’s a waste of his time. Everyone knows he’s the environment guy, so he should be talking about his record as governor of a state with a booming tech industry.”
While viewers can expect these candidates to push for the spotlight, all eyes are likely to be on Biden and Harris. The two front-runners butt heads during the first round of debates, with Harris strongly criticizing Biden for both his recent remarks about working with segregationists and his opposition to busing in the 1970s.
“I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris told Biden during the debate. “But, I also believe—and it is personal—it was actually very hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputation and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Biden stumbled over his response on stage, but later said Harris’s comments were “a mischaracterization of my position across the board.”
The two are also head-to-head in the polls, with Harris leading a PerryUndem poll on which candidate excites voters the most. When it comes to casting a vote, however, more than one poll has found the majority of voters think Biden is most likely to beat President Donald Trump.
Still, Nanberg said it’s unlikely viewers will get a repeat of last month’s match.
“Hopefully Biden’s team has prepared him better for this debate, so he won’t get caught as flat-footed,” said Nanberg. Harris, meanwhile, has shown she can “play in the big leagues,” but now she has to prove she can be a progressive candidate. “She’s got to focus a little bit more on policy this time around,” he said.
Booker, the third-highest ranking candidate on Wednesday night’s stage, also has some work to do, said Nanberg, who believes the candidate has been “lagging a little bit behind expectations.”
The New Jersey senator was one of the few candidates who showed their Spanish language skills during the first debate. The move created ample fodder for late night comedians, but Nanberg said this is a “strong strategy”—although it probably worked best because of the surprise factor.
Candidates shouldn’t overuse the move, “but if there’s a question for which it is appropriate I expect we’ll see candidates speaking Spanish again,” said Nanberg. “It’s a big portion of the electorate.”
Candidates brought out their language skills last month when the debate turned to immigration—giving Castro his break-out moment—but Wednesday’s topics of discussion are more likely to focus on racial discrimination and gun control, said Nanberg.
“There’s no way we’re not going to be talking about race in America after the week we’ve had with the president,” he said. Moreover, “race is such at the heart of the tension between Senator Harris and Vice President Biden the last time that I think that’ll come up again.”
President Trump earlier this month told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, despite the fact all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S. The House later condemned Trump’s statements, but the president’s rhetoric continued into this weekend, when he called Rep. Elijah Cummings’ majority-black Baltimore district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
Gun control, too, is likely to be a topic of debate due to current events: three people, including two children, were killed when a gunman opened fire at a California food festival Sunday.
Finally, healthcare is very likely to be discussed—not only because Harris recently released her new Medicare for All plan, but because the subject has become a headlining factor for voters.
“I think any time Democrats aren’t talking about health care, they’re missing an opportunity,” said Nanberg. “They should be working that into every debate whether they’re asked about it or not.”
Wednesday night’s debate will air live from Detroit from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.
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—How to watch round two of the Democratic debates for free—even without cable
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