The thing to remember about a debate involving 10 presidential candidates is that it isn’t a debate.
It is better to think of the back-to-back Democratic presidential debates Wednesday and Thursday as speed dating, where there’s only a fleeting moment to make a good impression.
“The problem is one of math,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.” Between the introductions, moderator chatter and commercial breaks, he said, each candidate “will probably only speak for around five to 10 minutes” during the two-hour throw downs.
With that little time, said Rachel Paine Caufield, author of “The Iowa Caucus,” “it’s hard to envision this as much of a debate. There are too many voices, and they have similar ideas.
“What I’m watching for is whether there is any one candidate who captures the divide in the Democratic Party between the coastal liberals and the labor liberals from the Midwest,” said Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa. “The party is struggling how to marry those two groups into a coherent coalition. If there’s a candidate who can do it naturally and with a coherent message, that person will stand out.”
The first 10 candidates tussle Wednesday, when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be the main attraction as the only candidate in the top tier of most polls. Thursday night features most of the top polling stars of this early phase of the campaign, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Both two-hour debates are being held in Miami at 6 p.m. PDT. Here are some things to watch for:
Will anyone — or everyone — take on Biden?
Despite Biden’s recent campaign controversies, Caufield doesn’t think anyone will seek to make a popular former vice president look bad right out of the box. There’s plenty of time for that, with 11 more Democratic debates scheduled before the nominee is crowned next July.
Instead, she predicted, the candidates will throw shaded comments his way such as, “‘It’s time for a new generation.’ Or, ‘We need fresh ideas.’ Or, ‘We can’t keep investing in the myth of compromise.’”
Biden, a two-time failed presidential candidate and mediocre debater, will probably try to remain above the fray. Perhaps he’ll rip off a zinger similar to the one he aimed at then-GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani in a 2007 Democratic debate — that the former New York mayor needed just three things to form a sentence: “a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
Wednesday debate lineup
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; former HUD Secretary Julián Castro; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Texas Rep. BetoO’Rourke; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; California Sen. Kamala Harris; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Dublin Rep. Eric Swalwell; self-help author Marianne Williamson; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
On TV: NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
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Live blog: Follow along with Chronicle political experts at SFChronicle.com
“But those were rare moments,” Schroeder said. “Most of the time he was a peripheral candidate in debates.”
Will Sanders adapt to the new world?
Sanders, whose selling point is that he remains consistently on message, will need to be more nimble. In 2016 he was usually the only one on stage with Hillary Clinton, and the only one advocating Medicare for all and free public college tuition. Now several candidates do.
“Now he’s a front-runner and he’s going to have to answer for a lot of his plans,” said Elaine Kamarck, author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”
If Medicare for all is passed, said Kamarck,“how does he explain taking away people’s private health insurance? Or how about when he said he would allow (convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) to vote from prison?”
Does Harris go into full prosecutor mode to revive her campaign?
While videos of Harris grilling Republicans like Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh went viral, “I don’t think being prosecutorial works being in a primary debate with 10 people,” Schroeder said. “This is a venue where every second of air time is precious.”
“Her challenge is to have her voice heard in a way that it differentiates her,” Caufield said, noting that Harris has stayed flat in the polls. “She’s struggling to do that now.”
Is Mayor Pete for real?
Buttigieg’s intellect and even-keeled persona gave him an early boost in the polls. But at 5-foot-9 and with a youthful 37-year-old visage, Buttigieg may struggle to establish gravitas standing next to the 6-foot-tall, 76-year-old Biden.
“The more interesting optic isn’t height, it’s the age difference — he’s half Biden’s age,” Schroeder said. When Biden debated 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, 26 years his junior, Ryan “looked like a kid in trouble with Dad for stealing the car.”
Buttigieg’s “challenge is not to melt away on a debate stage,” Caufield said. “He has to talk to rise in people’s opinion. But that’s hard to do when there’s so many people vying for attention. We haven’t seen him in a position where he has to assert himself among many much more experienced political voices.”
Plus, Buttigieg is dealing with his first major challenge of the campaign — his handling of the controversy around a white police officer fatally shooting a black man in South Bend.
Will John Hickenlooper go after Sanders?
It’s very likely, given that the former Colorado governor previewed his attack earlier this month at the California Democratic Party convention when he said “socialism is not the answer” — and was booed by the Sanders-friendly delegates. Going after the democratic socialist Sanders could put Hickenlooper on the map and set him up as the go-to centrist in the field should Biden falter, Kamarck said.
“That’s always the temptation for people who are polling low, is to throw a bomb, and Bernie would be a natural target,” Schroeder said. “But if Hickenlooper actually does that, I’d hate to be reading his Twitter feed afterward to see how Bernie’s supporters respond.”
Is Warren in a good spot?
Warren will be the only candidate in Wednesday’s lineup in the upper tier of polls, but that could be a mixed bag.
“She’s the star of that group. And that would not be the case if she were in the second night,” Schroeder said. “If she does well, she owns 24 hours of coverage to herself before the second debate starts.”
On the other hand, Kamarck said, it might hurt her because “she’s not being compared to the other (top-tier) candidates that she’s battling with.”
Can Beto recapture his magic?
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s poll numbers have tanked since his rock star debut, and Caufield doesn’t think the debate is where he’ll rekindle his flame. “When you see him in a relaxed setting, he’s a ball of energy. Always moving. Enthusiastic,” she said. “But when you put in him a suit on a debate stage, not so much.”
O’Rourke reminds Schroeder of “(Barack) Obama, in that he needs to be alone on a stage. Obama was really bad in most of his early debates. But he got better.”
Candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee who have made a single issue their focus (climate change, in his case) might have a better chance of standing out in a crowded field, “because people will identify your name with the issue,” Schroeder said. “And younger voters will remember his name because that’s an important issue to them.”
How will the rest of the candidates get noticed?
“That’s where you might get some craziness,” Kamarck said. “Somebody who is on life support already might try a gimmick. Some kind of line that gets repeated over and over. That’s the tried-and-true tactic for people who have fallen way behind.
“But really, what is (New York Mayor) Bill de Blasio doing in this race anyways?” Kamarck said. “It’s absurd.”
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @joegarofoli