This week, NBC and its affiliates will air the first televised debates of the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates: 10 facing off on Wednesday night, and another 10 on Thursday.

With the intense early interest in finding a challenger to Donald Trump, each event is expected to draw upwards of 10 million total viewers—many times more than have watched many of the candidates make their pitch to date.

The second night is being hyped as the one to watch. By chance of the draw, four of the five top-polling candidates will be on that stage: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders next to each other at center stage, flanked by Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris.

That’s not to be missed, certainly. But for my money it’s the first debate, on Wednesday night, that will be most important.

That’s because, at this stage of the race, the bigger question is which of the lesser-known candidates begin to gain traction, as they finally start introducing themselves to millions of potential voters.
Put it this way: yes, Thursday is the main event and Wednesday is the undercard—but the undercard is where the next title challengers emerge.

Wednesday: Finding the next contender

Of the low-polling candidates I rated last week as having a good shot at breaking through, five will participate in Wednesday’s debate: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Washington governor Jay Inslee, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. Only one, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, appear in Thursday’s debate.

Wednesday is where the top-ranked contenders will vie for top-tier rankings.

Without the distraction of so-called first-tier candidates, they should have a good chance to get what they desperately need: time and attention to make their pitches to Democratic voters who barely know them.
“The first night will be a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to the American people,” says Jared Leopold, senior communications advisor for Jay Inslee. If Inslee was in the second debate, Leopold says, he would likely be overshadowed by the expected clash between Biden and Sanders at center stage.

Going into Wednesday night, only about a third of Democratic voters know enough about Inslee to express a favorable or unfavorable opinion. That’s despite a career in politics, and months on the Presidential campaign trail.

So, Leopold says, Inslee will focus primarily on introducing himself to viewers as the self-styled climate change candidate. But, for viewers who know him only in that issue, Inslee will also draw upon his record of Governor to paint a broader picture.

Similarly, those who know of Julian Castro at all might know little more than his status as the only Hispanic candidate in the race. At his best, though, Castro weds the wonky, plan-oriented approach of Elizabeth Warren with practical leadership experience as a big-city mayor and cabinet secretary—in a generational-change package who also happens to represent the identity of the vitally important Latino Democrats.

It’s a combination that is hard to appreciate without seeing him speak and interact at some length, on a number of topics. This debate, though obviously a limited opportunity, will be his first chance in front of millions.

Similarly, many will be getting their first real look at Klobuchar’s appealing humor and midwestern appeal, that doesn’t always come across in news reports or soundbite clips.

Even the better-known of these candidates—Booker and O’Rourke—are still pretty unknown, with barely half of Democrats registering opinions of them.

Both of those men come into the debate with a sense of momentum, after energetic performances at a series of South Carolina events this past weekend.

And they get it. They’re looking to introduce themselves and their messages, not attack higher-polling candidates or seek a viral moment.

An O’Rourke spokesperson tells me in a statement that the congressman “will lift up the stories of those he’s met all across the country, connect them to the many robust plans he has outlined, and share his vision for how we can bring more people into this democracy.”

Campaign staff and advisors I’ve spoken to say that their candidates are looking for that kind of fundamental, connect-the-dots, message-and-messenger pitch—not a planned, attention-getting play for a viral moment.
They’re also not expecting attempts to contrast against other candidates in the race—including the one big name in the Wednesday debate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

If anything, expect other candidates to acknowledge and praise Warren’s well-branded reputation as the candidate with the plans.

Warren will likely be equally cordial to the others on stage—and the ones not appearing until Thursday. She’s perfectly happy with the current trajectory of the campaign, and is expected to sidestep controversy and focus on the strong rhetoric that has gotten her this far.

Thursday: Quieting the doubts

Pity the second-tier candidates, such as Hickenlooper, stuck into the Thursday debate.
Yes, they’ll probably have more eyeballs on them than the Wednesday group. But, most of the viewers will have just heard ten versions of very similar policy responses the night before; in the best of circumstances, it would be tough to sound interesting at that point.

That would be without the expected fireworks at center stage.

Although the participants each night were drawn at random, their stage order was not. Higher poll averages earns a podium closer to mid-stage. Thus, Biden and Sanders together.

This is the exact scenario the Sanders campaign dreamed of a few months ago. Back when Biden entered the race in late April, the Vermont Senator’s strategy was to frame the race as a binary choice: Bernie or Biden; progressive or centrist; grassroots or establishment. Make all other candidates, trailing far behind the two apparent leaders, seem irrelevant.

That has not panned out as hoped. Sanders is polling at 15 percent in the nomination race, according to the Real Clear Politics rolling average, much closer to Warren, Buttigieg and Harris than to Biden.

And far from perceiving it as a two-way race, most of the political media increasingly treats Sanders as just one in the field chasing the frontrunner. For example, when Biden stumbled this week on comments relating to working with segregationists in the Senate, Cory Booker grabbed the spotlight.

Signals from Sanders’ staff suggest that he plans to go hard at Biden in the debate, emphasizing not just policy differences but Biden’s reliance on wealthy donors, and questions of electability against Trump. It’s a risky strategy, that could turn viewers off of Sanders even as he wounds the frontrunner.

And on Biden’s other side will be Kamala Harris—who has generally refrained from criticizing other candidates, but has twice now publicly expressed disappointment in Biden’s recent remarks on race.

Moderators will undoubtedly press Biden on that, as well as other issues he doesn’t like addressing. Perhaps the biggest question of the night is whether he can maintain his composure and pivot smoothly to policy—or if he’ll make things worse by rising to the bait and lashing out.

Biden’s poll numbers, while still well ahead of everyone else, have been dropping since his post-announcement bump.

There is a sense that this debate comes just as Democratic voters may be on the verge of looking beyond Biden and Sanders, who until recently had combined for more than 50 percent of support in polls. Both need to shore up confidence in themselves.

But there are also doubts about the other two top-tier candidates who will be on Thursday’s stage.
Harris, seen as a powerhouse back in January, has stalled badly for months now. And Buttigieg, struggling to respond to a racially-tinged officer-involved shooting in his home city of South Bend, Indiana, is also giving people doubts.

The attempts of those four to regain momentum should make for intriguing viewing—especially with most viewers coming into the evening with positive impressions of at least a few of the Wednesday night group.
Which means that the crowded, confusing Democratic nomination contest will likely become even more wide-open and messy coming out of these first debates.