Tonight is the first of two Democratic presidential debates this week. With a field so broad, the Democratic National Committee split the 20 qualifying candidates into two nights of debates. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is taking part in tonight's debate. She is the only candidate in the top five, as far as polling goes, to be assigned to this first night's contest. WGBH Radio Political Reporter Adam Reilly spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about the debates and what we might see from Warren tonight. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: So what can we expect tonight?
Adam Reilly: My expectation is that Warren will pay a price for being the only top-tier candidate in what some people are calling the J.V. debate. It's not the fault of the debate sponsors, they did this randomly, but it puts her in a tough spot because she's been doing better, in fact, as the campaign has gone on. Her poll numbers are getting stronger. My assumption is that the other candidates she's sharing the stage with are going to be looking to knock her down a peg or two, maybe get people to pay attention to their own campaigns, some of which are kind of stuck in neutral, by going after it with her. So she can only punch down in this debate. If she were on the stage with Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg, she could fight with her equals, so to speak.
Howard: How do you expect her to handle it if she's an early and frequent target?
Reilly: I expect her to actually do a pretty good job rolling with the punches. I was going back, looking through some past debates that have been big for Warren. In her debate against Scott Brown back in 2012, there was a really interesting exchange where he went after her over her claims of Native American ancestry.
"Prof. Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color. And as you can see, she's not," said Brown.
Warren responded, saying, "I was going to start this by saying that I think that Sen. Brown is a nice guy and that what this race is about is about the issues."
Now what I hear there is Brown wanting to get down in the mud with Warren and Warren kind of serenely floating above the fray. She did go on in that debate to say, you know, 'I’ve said that I have Native American ancestry because it's something I've heard in my family for years; it's part of who I am.' So it's not like she ignored the issue totally, but she managed to take the high road at the outset, which made her look good and Brown look not so good. So I would expect she's going to take a similar tack this evening if people go after her.
Howard: What other lessons do Warren's past debate performances hold?
Reilly: Here's one big one: I expect her to be extremely well-prepared. There have been a lot of jokes about how she has a plan for everything, and she does have a detailed plan for almost everything. And I think that you will see her show those same skills in a debate setting. When she was debating Geoff Diehl in 2018, there was this fascinating exchange where they were talking about offshore drilling, and Warren said Geoff Diehl backed it.
Diehl protested, saying, "In fact, I was on WGBH Radio several months ago with Jim and Margery, talking specifically — and I'm on record as saying — I'm against anything that's going to affect our fishermen and the wind turbine placements that we're trying to get done to create more energy here in Massachusetts."
But Warren rebutted that, saying, "On Sept. 26, 2017, when he was on Southern Sense radio, Mr. Diehl said, 'You have to have all the options on the table. And so to me, offshore drilling, any and all places where we can get that energy in a reasonable way, I'm all for.'"
So there you had Geoff Diehl trying to weasel out of an accusation that Warren made against him. She knew exactly what was going to happen, and she was ready to use his own words against him, to really devastating effect. So I expect there to be a couple exchanges like that this evening, where she characterizes someone, they protest, and then she presents the evidence in a really effective manner.
Howard: Well the candidates who would seem to be Warren's major competition — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg — were all randomly assigned to tomorrow night's debate. Do you think that she'll try to take aim at them this evening, or will she just focus on those she's actually debating against, the lower-tier candidates like Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke?
Reilly: I expect her to do both. I expect her to nod in the direction of those other candidates you mentioned, in particular Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But I expect her to do it in an artful way, maybe not referencing them by name, but making pointed allusions to challenges that they have run into in a way that suggests to people watching that she is a better option than either of them are. But again, maybe their names go unmentioned but she manages to make her point.