2020 Election
By Philip Elliott
June 14, 2019

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren caught something of a break at Friday’s random dividing of the Democratic debate schedule, emerging as the strongest candidate on the first of two debates and dodging what’s shaping up to be a Joe Biden pile-on during the second.

Frontrunner Biden is scheduled to come face-to-face with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a grassroots favorite from Vermont; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s had a surprisingly strong showing so far; and Sen. Kamala Harris of California on the second night of debates. The division all but guarantees that Biden will be playing defense against some of his stronger opponents.

Biden faces a second risk in his debate, which features Buttigieg, 37, and California Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, who will have an opportunity to cast him and Sanders as septuagenarians out of step with the party’s younger voters.

For her part, Warren will face her strongest competitors on June 26 from fellow Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. Still, it’s tough to see ideological fireworks here. Booker has co-sponsored nine of Warren’s bills in this Congress, while Klobuchar has signed onto 10 of Warren’s proposals, and Warren has backed four of Klobuchar’s and seven of Booker’s bills. The trio, advisers say, actually like one another, and the Senate’s long tradition of comity might make it hard to attack each other anyway.

Still, there lingers some oddity about the lineup.

NBC News went to great lengths to make sure there wasn’t a main event and an undercard, unlike four years ago when it was the Republican Party that had such a mass of candidates. Network organizers this week divided the field into two camps: those polling about 2% and those below. NBC officials wanted to spread out the tiers across two nights and drew folded sheets of paper to randomly assign half of the top tier to one night and the rest to go later.

But fortune is blind, and it still feels like night two is the main event, given the cluster of better-polling candidates on that night. That gives Warren a primetime chance to pitch her big ideas against candidates who, frankly, may seem less serious of a threat.

Biden advisers know he’ll face incoming fire. The longtime senator hasn’t debated since 2012 and hasn’t publicly sparred with fellow Democrats since 2007. Despite Biden’s pronouncement this week that he’s prepared for the debate, he’s still spending at least a little time every day working on his answers. He is expected to take much of the next week to focus on his responses, working with former Obama White House communications maven Anita Dunn and longtime aides Ron Klain and Steve Ricchetti. Also in the room or on the line, policy adviser Stef Feldman and deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. They are keenly aware of the value of a rival leveling a brutal blow and how easy it can be to get under the Vice President’s skin.

The line-up also gives a bonus for Sanders, a favorite of a small but active group on the far left. Just this week, Sanders took to a podium on a Washington, D.C., campus to extol the virtues of democratic socialism, which for many younger voters has lost the Cold War connotations. He will have the chance to take on former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Biden.

And Harris, too, drew luckily. The Senator from California has slowly been building her campaign and in hearings on Capitol Hill has shown herself to be well prepared and crisp with her comments. As an alternative to Biden and Sanders, she could well have a moment to do on a national stage what she’s been doing in committee hearings since she arrived in Washington in 2017.

Still, the evening is the first real opportunity for these candidates to make an impression. The 2016 debates were ratings gold. The first Republican sparring drew 24 million viewers. As Buzzfeed first reported, NBC execs decided to broadcast the Biden cohort second to land the most eyeballs.

The lesser-knowns will, of course, have potential. No one was taking Buttigieg that seriously until he executed a pitch-perfect CNN town hall that left many asking “Mayor Who?” One-time political curiosity Donald Trump dominated rivals with far better political resumes to dethrone former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And Biden himself used a buzzy moment in 2007 — to define Rudy Giuliani’s campaign as “noun and a verb and 9/11” — to inject a last hope into his second bid for the White House.

Still, there will be a temptation to land the rehearsed jab at Biden or Sanders. But history has shown those practiced lines can backfire. One need only to Google “Robot Marco” to know how Marco Rubio repeated himself during one 2016 debate to be reminded how badly polish can come off. Instead, it’s the authentic if raw moments (Barack Obama telling Hillary Clinton in 2008 that she was “likeable enough” comes to mind) that define debate memories.

And those come based on a candidates’ core strengths and weaknesses, not based on a network schedule.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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