MIAMI (AP) — Democrats face off in a prime-time fight Wednesday night in the first debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, the unofficial starting line for the party’s quest to wrest the White House from Donald Trump and deny him a second term.
While the crowded field has been courting voters in key states for several months already, the vast majority of the nation has yet to pay close attention to the ambitious and diverse field. That begins to change when a collection of 10 candidates, led by fiery liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, face each other on national television for two hours.
The overall field is so large that a second group of 10 Democrats, led by early front-runner Joe Biden, will debate 24 hours later. The groupings were chosen at random by debate host NBC.
The meeting comes at a turbulent time for the nation at home and abroad, the economy strong but strained by the weight of the president’s trade wars and the threat of military conflict with Iran. At the same time, an emotional fight over immigration continues to sow divisions that have defined Trump’s America for much of the past four years.
Trump himself will be in the air traveling to Japan for a round of trade talks as Democrats face the nation for the first time in the 2020 campaign.
The Democrats face their own rifts, unified in their deep desire to beat Trump but deeply divided on what kind of candidate is best positioned to do so.
On one side: candidates like Warren who are demanding dramatic change that includes embracing liberal policy priorities like free universal health care, debt-free college, a forgiving immigration policy and higher taxes on the rich. On the other: pragmatic-minded Democrats like Thursday’s star — Biden — and little-known former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who are calling for modest policy solutions that could ultimately attract bipartisan support.
Beyond Warren and Delaney, Wednesday’s slate features Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and ex-Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro.
For many of the White House hopefuls, Wednesday marks their best opportunity to share their vision with the country and, if for just two hours, chip into a political news cycle often dominated by Trump.
It’s unclear how aggressively the candidates will attack each other — instead of Trump — as they jockey for position.
While early, time is already beginning to run out for lesser-known candidates who may not qualify for subsequent debates. They need a standout moment to spark a bump in fundraising and polling.
As one of the best-known candidates on stage Wednesday, Warren has an opportunity to further cement her status as a top-tier candidate. Perhaps more than anyone else, she also has a target on her back.
Asked about pressure, she shrugged off her center-stage position.
“This is just a chance to be able to talk to people all across this country about how this government works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top, and it’s just not working for the rest of America,” she said after a Tuesday rally in Miami.
“2020’s our chance to change that.””
Ahead of the debate, Warren and Klobuchar were visiting a large migrant detention facility in Homestead, about 40 miles southwest of Miami where the Trump administration is detaining migrant teens. O’Rourke and others plan to visit the facility in the coming days.
The stops are intended to draw attention to Trump’s immigration policies amid reports that some children separated from their families were being held at a detention center near the Texas-Mexico border without access to adequate food and water and sometimes couldn’t shower, wash their clothes or get toothpaste and soap.
While Democrats are largely united in their opposition to Trump’s hardline approach on immigration, they are divided on several high-profile policies — none more significant than “Medicare for All,” the single-payer health plan introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will be on Thursday night’s stage, and supported by Warren and others.
Several candidates, led by Biden, prefer other reforms that would give people a government-backed “public option” for health insurance while maintaining the private insurance market. Among Wednesday’s class, Delaney in particular has been especially vocal in his criticism of Medicare for All.
With so many White House hopefuls on stage, it could be difficult to dive too deep into any given issue.
NBC News, which is hosting the debate, said candidates will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups. They will be allowed closing statements but no openers.
Trump said he planned to watch the debate from Air Force One.
“Yes everyone said I’ll be tweeting, I’ll actually be on a plane and it just seems very boring, but I’m going to watch it because I have to,” he said on Fox Business Network. He added: “Do I want to watch it? Do I want to watch these people? That’s a very unexciting group of people.”
The debate will unfold as many Democratic voters are just beginning to tune in.
Only 35% of registered Democrats say they’re paying close attention to the campaign, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Two-thirds say they’re paying some or no attention.
The debate’s second night on Thursday features more of the leading Democrats in the race.
Biden will stand at center stage with Sanders at his left and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, at his right. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is polling about even with Buttigieg, will be there, too.
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago, David Bauder in New York, Alexandra Jaffe in Miami and Elana Schor in Washington contributed to this report.