The first Democratic presidential debates this week represent a pivotal moment for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the two Colorado candidates obscured in a dense primary field.
How to watch the debates
The large field is split between two nights.
The lineup for Wednesday’s debate (in alphabetical order): Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan and Elizabeth Warren.
The lineup for Thursday’s debate: Joe Biden, Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.
The debates, held in Miami, run 7 to 9 p.m. MST and will be broadcast on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, or free online at NBCNews.com, NBC’s Facebook page and YouTube.
Both will take the stage Thursday in Miami for the second of two broadcast debates, joining four of the five early front-runners: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
The lineup gives Bennet and Hickenlooper a key opportunity to contrast their ideas against top rivals, according to conversations with more than a dozen political observers, but it also may force them to fight for attention.
Entering the week, both Colorado candidates expressed apprehension about what to expect, and neither has much recent experience on a debate stage.
Hickenlooper won a narrow reelection contest five years ago after a series of debates that became messy. And Bennet participated in only one debate during his 2016 reelection bid, refusing others to avoid making a mistake against a weak Republican candidate.
“It’s like a beauty pageant,” said Lori Weigel, a pollster based in Colorado. “You have to have the most impressive talent to stand out, and no one wants to be the baton twirler and drop the baton.”
Here’s a look at five factors to watch in the first debates and what it will mean for Bennet and Hickenlooper:
1. “Hey, don’t forget about me.”
The big-name roster for the debate is a blessing and a curse for the Colorado candidates.
Most Democratic voters don’t know Bennet or Hickenlooper, and most polls show both hovering near 1%, which is within the margin of error. So the initial attention is expected to focus on the better-known names in the contest, who may consume most of the time.
Even if the two-hour debate is split evenly, each of the 10 candidates on stage will get no 10 minutes or less after factoring in the four commercial breaks. Both candidates will stand on the far ends, with Hickenlooper second from the left and Bennet second from the right.
“I think the challenge for both the candidates from Colorado is the same as most candidates: They need to get noticed and stand out in a crowd where their policy differences aren’t all that huge,” said Ken Bickers, a CU Boulder political science professor who studies campaigns.
The longest answers allowed under the rules are 60 seconds, so Bennet and Hickenlooper will need to distill their responses to short sound bites — not a natural talent for either candidate.
“These are just going to be really difficult circumstances,” said Jim Carpenter, a Democratic political consultant in Denver. “They are not necessarily showmen really, and they shouldn’t try to be. They need to find one or two points to try to push out there.”
Bennet can talk about his new plan to revamp the political system in Washington and the importance of health care given the prostate cancer diagnosis that forced him to delay his presidential campaign, according to political observers. Meanwhile, Hickenlooper can emphasize his experience as a businessman and a governor who takes action, contrasting his record against the inaction in Washington.
“I think what Hickenlooper will do is validate what we know about him, and I think what Michael Bennet needs to do is introduce himself and let us see and learn more about him,” said Andy Boian, a Democratic consultant based in Denver with experience in national politics.
2. Go for the viral moment, or play it safe?
One way to get noticed: Land a jab on a front-runner that gets attention on television or create a moment that goes viral on social media.
All the candidates in the contest — but particularly those in the middle of the pack — are looking for such opportunities. But the risk is a misfire, or looking inauthentic.
“It’s the same old Molly Ivins quote: ‘Debates are like stock car races. You’re not watching to see who wins, you’re watching to see who crashes,’” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic operative in Colorado.
Other observers agree. The first rule, Carpenter said, is “don’t mess up.” He also would advise candidates not to overreach. “Don’t try to hit a home run,” he said. “It’s really early, there’s lots of twists and turns in this (race).”
The safer strategy is sticking to their campaign message and playing the long game if they are interested in being considered for vice president or a cabinet pick. State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said the candidates need to “make good points — and not make too much of an impression.”
3. The case against Bernie Sanders
One way Hickenlooper and Bennet can draw attention to themselves is by making the case against Sanders, the Vermont senator.
Hickenlooper earned the most attention to date for his campaign when he blasted socialism as a path forward, taking particular aim at policies supported by Sanders.
Seth Masket, a University of Denver political science professor who also leads its Center for American Politics, said drawing Sanders into a one-on-one discussion on socialism could be beneficial for raising Hickenlooper’s profile. He doubts, however, that Sanders would fall into that trap.
“If he could somehow draw Sanders into that, it would be amazing,” Masket said. “I’m sure that would be a win for Hickenlooper.”
Similarly, Bennet has attacked Sanders’ call for government-run health care under the mantle of “Medicare for All.” He argues the plan is unworkable and political kryptonite because it will force people off current employer-based health insurance plans.
Andrew Markoff, who has coached candidates for debates and is currently campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Walsh, said there are pros to challenging someone on stage if it’s done carefully.
“I think if you have a message that contrasts with another candidate, and you are able to lay it out as part of an overall message or an overall strategy, then that’s a perfectly fine argument to make to the Democratic electorate,” he said.
Bennet and Hickenlooper will collectively make the case for a more moderate, pragmatic political approach, the same one being voiced by Biden, the former vice president who is leading in early state polls. But the question is whether there’s room for three of them on one stage.
“They’ll almost certainly be overshadowed by Biden. But Biden will also be drawing a lot of fire from other candidates simply because he is the front-runner,” Masket said. “They’re not necessarily going to take down Biden where he stands now. I think the idea is to position themselves as the next moderate white guy if Biden stumbles.”
It takes just $5 a month to make more journalism like this possible. Become a Colorado Sun member today.
4. Colorado pick two: How will Hickenlooper differentiate himself from Bennet, and vice versa?
The two Colorado candidates in the race are essentially competing in a primary within a primary, and appearing in the same debate doesn’t help.
“I’m sure in the back of both their minds is: We do need to separate ourselves as a candidate and not be the two white guys from Colorado. They are sort of in this awkward place,” Boian said.
One area where the two candidates are different is marijuana — but it’s not clear the topic will make the first debate. Bennet backed legislation to effectively legalize pot on the national level. But Hickenlooper disagrees, saying it should be a decision left up to states.
“On cannabis, they are dramatically different,” said Sal Pace, a former Democratic state lawmaker and legal marijuana advocate. “John Hickenlooper has been trying to position himself as not being an advocate of cannabis legalization (when) he vetoed three cannabis bills last session and then when he announced for president he said he wouldn’t support federal legalization. That puts him to the right of pretty much every Democrat in the race, including Michael Bennet, on cannabis.”
Personality could be another clear area for the pair to demonstrate how they are different. Markoff said he tells candidates to use their background and their story to show voters their unique value. “They will only get a few minutes, so using your time well is incredibly important,” he said. “Staying level-headed and cool is critical if you come under attack or someone throws a curveball.”
5. One eye toward September
Once the debate finishes, the hard work begins. To qualify for the next debate, the candidates will need to reach 2% in four qualifying polls and 130,000 qualifying donors — essentially double the threshold for this week.
Right now, Bennet and Hickenlooper aren’t projected to qualify, but a strong first debate would help their chances.
“They have to use this opportunity to build and to get enough fundraising support and enough popularity to make it into the third and fourth debates, which have higher thresholds,” Masket said.
He added: “It will be useful if they do have a memorable moment or two from the debates,” Masket said.
Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst, compared the Colorado candidates’ approach to the song “Stayin’ Alive.”
“Part of it is you just got to stay in the game,” he said. “If you’re not on the debate stage, you’re not in the game.”