In Miami, the Democratic debate circus begins well before the candidates take the stage

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall in Miami on June 25, 2019, the night before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall in Miami on June 25, 2019, the night before the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign.
(Rhona Wise / AFP/Getty Images)

Standing on a sweltering street corner in Miami’s Little Haiti, Jay Inslee practiced distilling his presidential campaign pitch to 60 seconds — the time limit he and fellow Democratic candidates will face for each question in this week’s primary debates.

The Washington governor, speaking to a small scrum of reporters, launched into a polished answer on his plans for 100% clean energy and eliminating coal-fired power plants. “I’m ready for this job,” he concluded, then evaluated his pithiness: “That was 58.2 seconds.”

Actually, it was 50.

Even before any of the candidates stepped onto the debate stage this week, they tried to squeeze the most out of their moment in Miami. For many of them, it will be fleeting, and failure to capture public attention at this event could prove fatal for their campaigns. They are competing for a piece of the spotlight with the protesters, provocateurs and trolls who see opportunity in the media hordes assembled here this week.


In a state the Ringling Bros. chose to call home, it makes for a colorful circus.

As Inslee prepared to embark on his walking tour of Little Haiti, joining local activists to talk about gentrification caused by climate change, Air Force Two was touching down just miles away. Out stepped Vice President Mike Pence, there to launch the Trump campaign’s intensive trolling operation. It started with the Tuesday morning unveiling of the Latinos for Trump coalition, at which Pence previewed what he expected from the Democratic debate: out of control socialism.

California Sen. Kamala Harris took some of the morning off from intense debate preparation to pop into the popular Univision morning program “¡Despierta America!” Harris chatted with the hosts about recipes, snacked on samosas in a nod to her Indian heritage and got her signature analyzed by a handwriting analyst, who said her autograph expressed traits such as creativity and follow-through.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio rocked his own food theme at his South Florida debut, opting to scoop ice cream, his favorite comfort food, for patrons at a Bonita Springs shop. Ryan is one of two candidates in the race whose writings on mindfulness and meditation give them a jump on the yoga vote. The other, Los Angeles author Marianne Williamson, took debate week as an opportunity to let reporters know how she would not like to be described. “Not her occupation: Spiritual guru (or any type of guru),” said a whimsical bio her campaign distributed to reporters. It also requested she not be described as Oprah’s BFF or Oprah’s guru.”

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Others sought a lower profile. Cory Booker held no events, although his campaign did post a video on social media of the New Jersey senator incorporating bicep curls into his debate prep. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have led in the polls, did not make any public appearances.

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Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro and team bunkered for four days in a downtown Miami hotel, holding daily news briefings and studying not just his policy proposals but also those of his rivals. The biggest challenge, Castro said, would be boiling down a compelling sales pitch to one minute, and making sure his rivals didn’t hog precious seconds onstage.


“Usually I’m not somebody that jumps in all the time,” Castro said. “However, if those time limits are not being respected or folks are usurping time, then I’m prepared to do that.”

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Some candidates turned their focus a bit inland, to a detention center in Homestead that houses migrant children. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California went there Monday; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas is heading that way Thursday. At a Tuesday evening town hall at Florida International University, Elizabeth Warren was implored by a supporter to visit as well to draw attention to the facility.

“I’m going to Homestead tomorrow,” the Massachusetts senator told her audience of about 1,300. “Come with me.”

There are so many candidates in this race that even the party’s veteran power brokers are having trouble keeping track of them all. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten momentarily forgot about Castro when she concluded a booming introduction of O’Rourke at a North Miami town hall Tuesday by branding him “the Texas candidate.” She stopped herself just before O’Rourke walked onstage and noted that there is actually also another one from Texas. “Sorry, my bad,” she said.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) speaks during an American Federation of Teachers town hall on June 25, 2019, in North Miami.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

The event may have been humbling for O’Rourke, with a turnout of about 120 and a couple of dozen empty folding chairs. But O’Rourke’s decision to break from debate prep to chat with teachers paid dividends when a horde of reporters clamored around him afterward.

How was he prepping for the debate? “You are seeing it,” he said. “I am at town hall listening to teachers.… I can think of no better way to prepare.”

It was not great news for O’Rourke that a poll released by the advocacy group Climate Nexus showed him with the support of 2% of Florida voters. But one of his lesser-known rivals — former Maryland Rep. John Delaney — welcomed the same result. Delaney’s campaign framed it as a moment, pointing out that Warren is the only candidate debating alongside him Wednesday night doing better in the Florida poll.

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Film director Rob Reiner and billionaire activist Tom Steyer used debate week to turn up the pressure on congressional Democrats — several of whom will be on the debate stage — to begin impeachment proceedings.

“This is not about a political calculation,” Reiner said. “This is about protecting democracy. If this president can’t be impeached, then no president will ever be impeached.”


As the sun set, the blazing heat subsided and the candidates hunkered back down for a night of debate prep Tuesday, those eager for the show to go on merely needed to pick up their phones. Steyer and Reiner’s telephone “Impeach-in” was just getting underway.

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