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Who’s Got the Most to Gain at the Second Round of Debates?

The stage is set. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Gabriel Debenedetti and Benjamin Hart discuss candidate strategy and Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities heading into round two of the Democratic primary debates.

Ben: Going into the second round of debates, it seems likely that at least one candidate, and possibly more, will try to emulate Kamala Harris’s breakout moment last month by directly attacking Joe Biden — even if they’re not sharing a stage with him. The former veep is still very much the frontrunner in this thing, and as such, he has a lot to lose. But who do you think has the most to gain tonight and tomorrow?

Gabriel: I’d go a bit further than that. It’s not just likely that others will go after Biden, it’s basically a lock. And it won’t just be those on the same stage as him, either, as you suggest. (Hi, Bernie!) For a while, candidates thought his high favorability numbers meant that attacking him was a dangerous game. Clearly Harris didn’t agree, and that changed everyone’s calculus. But I’m not convinced the candidates with the most to gain will necessarily be the ones going after Biden.

There are two ways of looking at this: The real answer is “everyone who will probably have to drop out if they don’t make the September debate,” so, like, half the field. They have the most to gain, because they have basically nothing to lose. The September debate is looking like a pretty effective winnowing mechanism, and a bunch of candidates will probably find it hard to keep going if they don’t make it that far.

But I actually think the real answer is those who will likely make the September debates, but aren’t currently considered top tier. I’m thinking Booker, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Castro, Yang. If they can convince voters to take them slightly more seriously, they can try and grow from their current mid-tier status during the otherwise quiet summer months.

Ben: Right now, there seems to be an internal debate among other Democrats about the best way to attack him. Harris went after him on race, but his wobbly affect in the face of her challenge was just as important, if not more, than what he actually said. Do you think there’s a particular way in which candidates will try to make him look off-balance again?

Gabriel: Based on my conversations with other campaigns and Biden’s, it’s fair to say everyone is ready for this. So no one really thinks it’ll be all that easy to catch Biden off-guard this time and dent his image in the same way. Most of the criticism this time is likely going to be focused on making him look old, like a relic of a kind of politics that no longer works, or one that shouldn’t.

There’s a policy debate, of course, but also an attempt to recast Biden’s overall image: His rivals want you to think of him as yesterday’s news, and they’ll pick at his record and hope he doesn’t spend much time going at theirs. Of course, his team has been pretty clear in suggesting that he’s done his research and will talk about Booker’s record in Newark, for example, or Harris’s prosecutorial legacy.

Ben: As you mentioned in your debate preview, the chances of a lower-tier candidate lobbing a “hail mary” are high. Whether it’s a cringeworthy attack on Biden or some other sort of attention-getting stunt, who has the most potential to create an unintentionally memorable moment? Or is this question too uncharitable to our fine crop of contenders?

Gabriel: The last debate was a great lesson in how we really never know. Did I expect to be thinking about Jacinda Ardern? Not really! But I would watch Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper: Bullock may only have one shot to be in the public eye, and he’s going to take it. (He wasn’t in the last debate.) He’s not one to pull stunts, but he knows he needs to make waves somehow. And Hickenlooper has replaced his senior team since the last debate, and has started throwing unexpected elbows at some surprising rivals.

But who knows? Maybe Jay Inslee will show up wearing a tree costume. Maybe Tim Ryan will do yoga on stage.

Ben: One can dream.

CNN has pledged not to ask any questions that involve candidates raising their hands if they agree with a certain point —  this is viewed as simplifying complex issues too much, and candidates who endorsed unpopular positions without explaining themselves weren’t a fan of the approach. What else did we learn from last time about how to conduct an effective debate with so many people onstage?

Gabriel: It’s really hard! One thing I was surprised by was how seldom candidates tried to butt in and assert themselves in conversations they obviously wanted to be part of. So CNN, I am sure, will be on the lookout for that. And they’ll also likely try to keep the major candidates engaged throughout — there were some stretches last month where Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg in particular all seemed like part of the background. That’s kinda just what happens with ten people on stage, but it’s not ideal for viewers, voters, or the network. If you were directing this debate, was there any one moment from the last ones you’d be desperate to avoid?

Ben: It does feel like all the interrupting and shouting over each other is impossible to get rid of.

Gabriel: That’s democracy, baby.

Ben: Last question: can Marianne Williamson win this thing or what?

Gabriel: Depends what you mean by “this thing.”

Ben: I mean “our hearts.”

Gabriel: Oh, absolutely.

Who’s Got the Most to Gain at the Second Round of Debates?