WASHINGTON — The opening 2020 Democratic debate double feature is set: Elizabeth Warren vs. the field on the first night, and establishment Joe Biden vs. democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — plus two more of the top-five polling hopefuls and six undercard candidates — in the "Lord of the Flies" closer.
The two-day extravaganza in Miami, which will air live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo June 26-27, represents the first time a national television audience gets to see most of the contestants for the Democratic nomination compete against one another. In this case, it will be in decahedral — or ten-headed — fashion, with the group of 20 candidates who qualified split evenly between the two nights.
But in terms of marquee names, the draw ended up heavily weighted toward the second night — a dynamic that has big implications for both rounds.
In the first heat, Warren — the Massachusetts senator who currently sits third at about 12 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls — is the only one of the five candidates registering above 4 percent routinely in surveys who will be on the stage.
That could be a blessing for her — a chance to dominate — but it could also be a curse if she fails to deliver.
Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist whose firm Park Street Strategies is releasing a poll of Democratic voters on Monday, said that the same pressure is on all the top-tier candidates regardless of which night they drew.
"None of them can afford to falter in a debate," he said. By the same token, he said, Democratic voters are suffering from candidate overload and are ready for the field to winnow some, which puts an onus on the lesser-knowns to raise their profiles quickly.
"Either they rise to the moment, or their candidacy is done," he said. "The margin-of-error candidates have no margin for error."
The other nine competing with Warren, a set that includes two of her fellow senators, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and one former Texas congressman — Beto O'Rourke — who has become more aggressive as he tries to jump-start his campaign, see an opening in avoiding a Biden-Sanders slugfest that also features Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
"This is an opportunity for us," said an aide to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the challenges facing other candidates. "Every story that comes out of Night Two of the debates is going to be about Biden and how he stacked up against the younger candidates given how he has been covered lately."
Those younger candidates "are going to struggle to break out of that shadow," the aide said.
The sleeper candidate on the first night could be Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been praised in Democratic circles for her performance in high-profile congressional hearings and who gets informal advice from a set of longtime party hands familiar with the debate-prep process.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who has made climate change the center of his campaign; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who has earned plaudits from Warren for his immigration proposal; two sitting House members, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio; and one former congressman, John Delaney of Maryland, round out the lineup for the first night.
All eyes will be on Biden and Sanders, who represent the poles of the Democratic primary contest — a centrist who has "evolved" as the party has moved leftward on social policy over his decades in the spotlight, and an iconoclastic progressive who has run as an independent for the House and Senate and recently gave a speech laying out his philosophy of democratic socialism.
They also happen to be the candidates with the highest name-recognition and the leaders in most national polls, as well as the small set of surveys that have been taken in the first four states on the Democratic primary calendar.
Sanders will welcome the opportunity for a direct contrast, as he has been the candidate most open to taking on Biden, the popular former vice president, directly. But he'll have competition on the stage in the form of Buttigieg and Harris, who will have to weigh whether they are more concerned with introducing themselves to the many voters who still don't know them or taking the risk of going after the front-runners to cut into their support.
For voters, the stage will offer a full study in comparisons between Biden and the rest of the pack.
"He's going to have a lot of sharp contrasts, because you're going to have Bernie Sanders, who is much more progressive than he is, and Pete Buttigieg, who is much younger than he is, and Kamala Harris, who is a woman of color," said Patti Solis Doyle, who was campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's first bid for president. "There's just going to be a lot of visual contrasts there between the front-runner and the other candidates."
That could cut two ways for Biden: It could be that the panoply of Democratic rivals drown one another out or that he comes off as unrepresentative of the party.
"I don’t know if it’s good or bad," Solis Doyle said. "But for the first time in this race, you’re going to see what the choices are."