With so many candidates onstage, the Democratic presidential debates risk becoming a stilted, parallel-play affair, with candidates trying to squeeze scripted messages into tiny scraps of airtime.
But the prospects of an unruly political feeding frenzy, particularly on the second night of the two-day extravaganza, have soared as former Vice President Joe Biden has thrown chum in the water: His provocative comments about race will tempt candidates to abandon restraint and go on the attack.
The back-to-back debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights could be a pivot point in the Democrats’ primary campaign, which for months has seen candidates refraining from criticizing one another — or doing so only in veiled terms.
It will be a high-stakes test for the biggest primary campaign field ever, which includes three black candidates, one Latino, six women, two Asian Americans and an openly gay man.
The lineup includes Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual advisor and a congressman who meditates; the mayor of the nation’s largest city and the mayor of South Bend, Ind. The oldest candidate was born before Pearl Harbor; the youngest when Ronald Reagan was president.
Some are well-known figures; more are obscure and thirsty for national attention.
They will all come together for the first time in a scramble to make an impression, avoid gaffes, draw contrasts and send a message. All in seven minutes or less, the estimated amount of airtime each candidate will get in the two-hour sessions. The debates will be televised on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo starting at 6 p.m. PDT each night.
Only half the field will have a direct shot at Biden: With so many running for the nomination, the Democratic National Committee capped debate participants at 20 — three others didn’t meet the fundraising and polling criteria to make the stage — and split them between the two nights, with 10 for each session.
As the clear front-runner in early polls, Biden already had a target on his back. That bull’s-eye got bigger on Tuesday after he spoke nostalgically of his “civil” relationships with segregationists in the 1970s Senate and made a joke about not being called “boy” by one of them.
So far, Biden has pursued a strategy of trying to stay above the fray, looking past his primary rivals to focus on President Trump. The Thursday night debate, in which he’ll be at center stage, flanked by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, will test that approach.
Sanders, who is running second in many polls behind Biden but has appeared to lose some support in recent weeks, is preparing to draw a strong contrast between his democratic socialist vision and what he calls Biden’s “middle ground” approach on issues like healthcare and trade.
“Biden wants to skate on the suggestion that we are all shades of the same gray,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Bernie wants to make clear that you have fundamentally different choices to make between governing vision, philosophy and how we are going to shape the agenda. That choice has to be drawn out.”
Biden backers think blunt attacks on him will backfire.
“The front-runner position always puts you as a target,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.). “People don’t want the personal attacks. We’ve seen enough with our current president.”
When almost all the candidates appeared at South Carolina Democratic party events last weekend, none of them brought up the segregationists controversy.
Sanders has also been studying up on other rivals, where they stand on key issues like Medicare for all, and what they have said about him. He will be sharing a stage with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, who has criticized Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism.
While debate organizers hoped to arrange the two nights to include equivalent numbers of top-tier candidates, a random drawing ended up putting four of the leaders — Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California — on Thursday night.
That allows for a clear contrast between Biden and Sanders, the marquee fight.
It also gives Buttigieg a good opportunity to make his central campaign argument — on the need for a generational leadership change — as the 37-year-old will be sharing a stage with two septuagenarians. But he will likely have to address the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer back home in South Bend.
Harris, who has been doing debate preparation at the office of her media consultant, Jim Margolis, in Washington, D.C., will be able to take advantage of a contrast of her own — as a woman and a person of color up against three white men at center stage.
On the first night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has passed Sanders and moved into second place in some polls in recent weeks, is the only top-tier candidate. But she will be surrounded by some skilled campaigners, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
All three of them have been mired in disappointing low-single-digit polling positions. For each, the debate will provide a shot at a badly needed breakout moment.
Warren supporters, in the run-up to the debate, are trying to build a sense of momentum. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee on Monday is launching an effort to highlight voters who are recent converts to Warren.
“The debates represent the biggest opportunity yet for voters to see Warren in action and switch their support as they realize she’d crush Trump,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC.
Unlike general-election presidential debates, which for all the attention they get rarely change a race, primary debates often cause big shifts.
The risks of making a serious mistake onstage are high: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will always be remembered for his “oops” moment in a 2011 GOP debate, when he could remember only two of the three federal Cabinet departments he wanted to abolish. His campaign, already crumbling at that point, never recovered.
But the potential upside of a good debate performance could also be substantial. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich twice revived his flagging — ultimately unsuccessful — campaign for the GOP nomination in 2012 with standout debate performances.
“These multi-candidate debates tend to be more like joint press conferences; they are not set up for a clash,” said Brett O’Donnell, a political consultant who has given debate coaching to five Republican presidential candidates. “If you want a moment, you want a clash to occur, and you have to make that happen.”
The stakes are especially high for the many candidates who are barely known to most voters; their campaigns could stand or fall on whether they score a memorable moment.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a candidate at the back of the pack, is aiming to convey his economic message and policy innovations, which include promoting yoga and meditation as a suicide prevention strategy for veterans.
“We’re going to talk about who I am, and where I’m from,” Ryan told MSNBC.
Marianne Williamson, an author and lecturer who has been Winfrey’s spiritual advisor, brings mindfulness to her view of the debate and is trying to avoid hyping its importance, or else “I won’t be authentic in the moment.”
“That’s just how life is,” she said in an interview. “You have to be real in that moment or you are going to miss the beat.’’
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.