The race for the Democratic presidential nomination picks up Wednesday and Thursday nights with back-to-back prime-time debates.
Twenty candidates qualified to take the debate stage in Miami based on their poll numbers or fundraising. They will be split into two groups of 10, with the action beginning each night at 9 p.m. ET on NBC and Telemundo.
The events will include two candidates with local roots: former Vice President Joe Biden, who was born in Scranton and represented Delaware in the Senate for more than three decades, and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
Even though the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are still six months away, the stakes are high for both candidates, political analysts say.
Biden, 76, will enter Thursday’s debate as the early front-runner for the nomination, while Booker, 50, will take the stage Wednesday having not yet caught on in the polls.
It’s important that Biden avoids showing signs of his age, such as losing his place in the middle of an answer, and doesn’t make any gaffes, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
“He doesn’t want to slip up here because he’s had so many slip-ups on the campaign trail that doing so could lead many voters to believe that he’s simply too old to be an effective president,” she said.
Booker, meanwhile, needs to have a “breakout moment,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Delaware. That may be challenging for a candidate who has built his campaign on aggressive optimism and the promise he can bring people together, he said.
“It’s really difficult for a guy who runs on love, essentially, to be the attack dog that he may have to be to get the attention he needs,” Redlawsk said.
The full list of candidates in Wednesday’s debate are New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Booker; former HUD Secretary Julián Castro; former Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delaney; Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Ohio U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan; and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Thursday’s debate will feature Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet; Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; New York U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders; California U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell; author and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
How much will other contenders attack Biden?
One of the big questions in the debates is how much the other contenders attack Biden for his record on race, abortion or other issues, Redlawsk said.
“Is this going to be a debate where each candidate more or less just presents themselves and what they’re about, or are we going to see very direct attacks on the former vice president?” he said.
Harrison said Warren is likely to receive the most attention during Wednesday’s debate, but the debate format should also play to Booker’s strengths.
“Sen. Booker’s advantage is that he’s an incredible political speaker,” she said. “His command of political rhetoric is second to none, highly evocative of Barack Obama’s, and so I think the challenge will be for him to get enough time to talk.”
Harrison also noted that Booker has a strong command of policy issues and has carved out innovative positions on topics like marijuana legalization and economic opportunity, including a proposal to give every child born in the U.S. $1,000 in “baby bonds.”
Biden and Booker will not be on the debate stage together, but they did exchange barbs recently after Biden invoked his work with Southern segregationist senators to make a point about civility in Congress.
Booker made headlines when he criticized Biden for the remarks, issuing a statement that “Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”
Also in the race for the Democratic nomination is Joe Sestak, the former Pennsylvania congressman and retired three-star admiral.
Sestak announced his candidacy on Sunday — a delay he said was caused by his daughter’s battle with brain cancer — and thus did not meet either of the thresholds to appear on the debate stage this week.
At least 24 Democrats have announced their bid for president.