2020 Election
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Winning the First Debate? Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan for That

7 minute read

Framed by a backdrop of a neon-pink sunset outlined with palm trees, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at first seemed out of place on Tuesday as she faced a young and diverse audience in Miami on the eve of the first Democratic debate.

Some in the crowd looked at each other in surprise when the Massachusetts Democrat took the stage at Florida International University, seemingly startled at the 70-year-old Senator’s unexpectedly loud voice as she enthusiastically detailed her plans on everything from election security to anti-corruption legislation.

In the words of 24-year old Hidekel Olivo-Pinales, they were “taken aback by how straight forward she was, she was so personable and really just broke everything down in a way everyone could understand.”

By the end, the crowd had started to chant along to her trademark phrase “I have a plan for that!” When a supporter asked her to visit the largest detention center for unaccompanied migrant children in the country, roughly 30 miles away in Homestead, Fla., she surprised the audience by announcing “I’m going tomorrow, come with me!” to a standing ovation.

Such is the confidence of a prepared and confident contender like Warren. As she readies herself for her first presidential debate, she has been fastidiously reviewing ambitious policy proposals and then whittling them down to easy-to-digest, bite-sized explanations that make complicated issues palatable to more voters and seem infinitely solvable. At her town halls you can count on her now-go-to laugh-line of “I’ve got a plan for that” to drawing knowing laughter and cheers, but it’s not hyperbole to say she probably has one.

But she arrives on a debate stage that by dumb luck puts her atop her rivals, meaning there will be plenty of temptation for her foes to take their shots. Her chief rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, will be debating on Thursday, alongside South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has spent recent days dealing with racial tensions back home.

Read More: The First 2020 Debate Is Almost Here. What You Need to Know

Instead, Warren will be facing off against the likes of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is doing his best to show he’s no slouch but still hasn’t quite sparked the intense support of his failed Texas Senate bid.

Ahead of Warren’s rally, O’Rourke was fielding questions from members of the American Federation of Teachers in the gym of a middle school with a large Haitian population. Taking questions in both English and Spanish, O’Rourke alluded to the looming debates and said such town hall-style meetings have helped him prepare.

“In politics and in democracy, anything goes, but I’m going to be focused on the future,” O’Rourke told reporters after.

This dynamic — Warren’s specifics and O’Rourke’s aspirations — will have its first real reckoning on Wednesday. Americans will have a full view just how diverse the Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination are, in terms of age, race, gender, ideology and readiness. Where Warren reads the footnotes of the policy papers that reach her daily briefings, O’Rourke is live-streaming his dentist appointment. It’s a bet for audacious policy versus authentic transparency. It speaks to just how vehement Democrats are to win though they lack a common playbook.

The two won’t be alone on stage, of course, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made his campaign all about climate change, and is preparing to answer almost any question thrown at him with an environmental pivot, which in Miami will be likely. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino in the race, was the first candidate to put out a detailed immigration policy and will be prepared to speak to the concerns of South Florida’s diverse Hispanic population. (The debate is co-hosted by Telemundo). All the while, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is all-in when it comes to a message of changing the course of this country’s tone and politics.

Also on stage: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Rep. Time Ryan of Ohio and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland.

There will also be five moderators for the two-hour affair here in Miami. That’s right. Fifteen people on stage for 120 minutes. That means, if time were allocated evenly — which it most certainly won’t be — the best case is eight minutes apiece. Still, for many of them, that’s eight minutes of national television more than they could have expected elsewise.

“It’s gonna’ be tough, right? You’ve got 60 seconds to respond to some of the biggest questions that are on the minds of the American people right now,” O’Rourke said Tuesday evening.

The spotlight will be aimed at center-stage Warren, who since she launched her campaign in January has managed to shed the caricature of a bookish Ivy League professor to reveal herself as an earnest populist from Oklahoma. A shrewd political thinker, she has targeted Biden’s claim that he alone can win over white voters in rural America. Just look at her opioid town hall in West Virginia, when many voters nodded along as she proved that she knows what’s going on beyond Harvard and the Beltway.

And, in one-on-one conversations with party elders nervous about Biden’s prospects and newcomers who want to oust President Donald Trump above all else, she’s quietly building a massive, coast-to-coast political machine that stands to pay dividends.

Warren in many ways lucked out in drawing the first night. She will stride onto the stage as the strongest-polling candidate in the mix. She will be able to take shots, if she wants, at Biden and Sanders from afar and without immediate rebuttal. She will not have to take on the others on stage, given they’re trailing her. (“You don’t punch down,” one informal Warren adviser said.) Then there’s the gender dynamic: Never before have we had this many women on a presidential primary debate stage.

Barring a spectacular implosion, the evening is unlikely to reshape the race. Everyone who qualified for the June debates will qualify for July’s sequels in Detroit. Those debates are likely to expand, given late-comer Steve Bullock, the Montana Governor, is ramping up his campaign and will likely meet the qualifications.

Still, the evening was poised to be a first window into how the race was starting to play out, still more than 200 days before Iowa leads-off the nominating contests in February of next year. As the hours ticked down to the debate, it looked like Warren’s night to lose.

“I had no idea what to expect, but now I’ve seen her I’d be be scared to go against her at the debate, she really does have a plan for everything,” said 22-year old Ernest Barral as he stood in a line of hundreds of supporters to get a photo with Warren. “Once she gets forceful and starts pointing her finger, I mean damn.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen / Miami at vera.bergengruen@time.com and Philip Elliott / Miami at philip.elliott@time.com