Impeachment, socialism and Biden-baiting: What to look for at the 2020 Democratic debates

Peter Funt
When 20 Democrats debate in Miami, will they support impeaching Donald Trump? Will they go after front-runner Joe Biden? And will anyone bring up age?

As golfers and politicians know, you can't win a tournament in the first round but you can easily lose it. When Democrats seeking the nomination for president debate June 26 and 27, they will try to move up the leaderboard while avoiding a flub that could ruin their chances. 

Don't expect the kind of theater Republicans displayed in their first debate in 2015 when Fox's Megyn Kelly asked candidate Donald Trump why he had referred to some women as "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." Trump shot back in a way that the nation has since come to know well: "I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness." There won't be anyone like Trump on the stage in Miami and even the most combative candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is likely to remain P.C. 

Expect a 'carnival,' not a debate

Little of what viewers see — from the awkward division of 20 candidates into two flights of 10 to the excessive use of five moderators by NBC and Telemundo — will survive in later debates. As for the random draw, it finds Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has climbed in recent polls, on somewhat of an island the first night while the other front-runners — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are bunched on night two. That could give Warren more time in the spotlight, but it also prevents her from standing out in direct comparison to her main rivals. 

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Fact is, the word "debate" is misappropriated in this event since genuine back-and-forth on key issues is virtually impossible with so many participants. A hint of what the mashup is likely to resemble came earlier this month at Iowa's Hall of Fame gathering in Cedar Rapids. The 19 candidates were each given a carefully-timed five minutes to introduce themselves, and most mixed predictable anti-Trump rhetoric with a dash of progressive policy.

The upshot: All 19 were in general agreement in what amounted to a lightning round. Or, as Carrie Ball of Cedar Rapids summed it up in the Des Moines Register, "It's like a carnival.” 

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, campaigns for president in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 9, 2019.

Here's what to look for in Miami: 

►Will the field target Biden? He has consistently led the polls and challengers are finally daring to criticize him. Sanders is the most vocal, but even former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke now warns that the party "can't return to the past," while Buttigieg stresses the need for "a new generation of leadership." 

►Who supports impeachment? Democrats all want to appear tough on Trump, but most waffle when it comes to impeachment. Harris broke new ground recently by saying that Trump should be prosecuted after he leaves office.

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►Will anyone say the "S" word? Only Sanders calls himself a socialist — a "democratic socialist" — yet all Democrats favor aspects of socialism. Republicans will be watching for soundbites to further stigmatize the term. 

Age, punditry and Hillary Clinton 

►Does age come up? Sanders is 77, Biden is 76 and Trump just turned 73. Buttigieg is 37. Will anyone play the age card, high or low?

►What's Maddow's angle? Amid fellow NBC moderators Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and José Díaz-Balart, Rachel Maddow stands out as more of an opinion host than a straight-news journalist. Will she craft questions to answer her critics?

►Hillary who? Sanders gave a speech recently pinned to the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, while other Democrats often invoke the name Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton? Five dollars says her name will never be spoken.

As for the rest of the betting line:

►A dollar every time Warren says "plan," Harris says "prosecute," Buttigieg says "generation," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says "Midwest," Sanders says "rigged," Biden says "folks," and anyone from NBC says "historic."

Peter Funt is a writer and host of "Candid Camera."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment, socialism and Biden-baiting: What to look for at the 2020 Democratic debates