Updated Jun 27, 2019

2020 Dems' debate survival guide

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

MIAMI, Fla. — No matter if you're Andrew Yang or Joe Biden, the best way to stand out at the first debates tonight and tomorrow night is to ignore the desire to create a viral moment.

The state of play: Instead, make sure voters know who you really are and find an opportunity to take on President Trump, according to conversations with seven Democratic strategists — because that's also a way for the other Democrats to take on Joe Biden indirectly.

Why it matters: This is the opposite of most campaigns' strategy on the trail so far.

  • Once little-known Democrats like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke soared to the top of the crowd after they went viral at town halls.
  • And 2020 Democrats are rarely asked about Trump by voters, so they mostly get a pass from talking about him on the campaign trail.
  • "The first debate is just the first date. No candidate is going to get a marriage proposal, they just need people to want a 2nd," said Jesse Ferguson, a progressive political consultant and an alum of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

Be smart: Demonstrating that you're tough on Trump is also a subtle way to detract support from Biden, some strategists say, because he's been running a general election campaign focused on the incumbent president.

By the numbers: 82% of Democrats and independents want a nominee who they think can beat Trump, according to a recent Daily Beast/Ipsos poll.

  • That's consistent with what we've seen this cycle, where voters consistently tell pollsters they are most attracted to a Democrat who can defeat the president — a factor that prevails over others like race, gender and even ideology.

What they're saying: "To the extent that people think Biden's success to date is this notion that he’s best suited to take on Donald Trump, you’ll see people who are trying to take on Donald Trump instead," said Philippe Reines, who played Trump during Hillary Clinton's debate prep in 2016.

  • "If I were [Elizabeth] Warren I'd say something like: 'Mr. President, if you’re watching, every person on this stage would make a better president than you, but boy do I hope it’s me that gets to take you on, because you know what I have? A plan to beat you."

For someone like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, "people just need to know who the hell you are," said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former director of communications for Clinton.

  • But the Trump focus could work well for her, too, according to one Democratic operative.
  • "Does being tough mean you have to trade tweets with Trump on Twitter? No," the operative said. "It can also be someone like Klobuchar [who] won 42 counties in 2018 that he won in 2016. 'Tough' can be having a record of winning in areas he won."

Twitter rewards viral moments, but that doesn't mean the Democratic primary electorate does. "It’s not like we’re going into the debate thinking: ‘How are we gonna light ourselves on fire to get attention and be the takeaway?’" said one Democratic campaign aide.

  • Just look at the way Kamala Harris has gone viral for her questioning of Trump's cabinet secretaries in recent months. That questioning was certainly planned, but knowing it would go viral? Not so much.
  • "You want complex carbs not a sugar rush," said one Democratic strategist who's talked with various campaigns. "Compared to Warren who’s been steadily building a narrative of actions and policies, that’s more of structured support than the sugar rush of support that Mayor Pete and Beto are getting from viral moments."

The big question: If candidates could write the headline coming out of this debate, what would they want it to be? Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist and co-host of the podcast "The Electables," says that's key to winning this first debate.

  • That's especially true for someone like Julián Castro, who's been polling around 1% despite shaping the policy conversation. "This is an opportunity for Castro to let voters know there’s a young progressive leader in the race who also has Obama administration experience," said another Democratic operative familiar with the campaign's thinking.

The bottom line: This first debate is simply an introduction, and you know what they say about first impressions.

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