What will Democrats look for in debates? Someone they can imagine onstage with Trump

Confronted by his own history of referring to women as fat pigs, dogs and slobs, he countered that the big problem in the country was political correctness.

What will Democrats look for in debates? Someone they can imagine onstage with Trump

WASHINGTON — He stood in the middle of the debate stage and raised his hand to indicate he would not pledge to support the Republican nominee for president — unless it was him.

Confronted by his own history of referring to women as fat pigs, dogs and slobs, he countered that the big problem in the country was political correctness.

And he launched into one rival, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, by noting that he never attacked his appearance but said, “Believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter there, that I can tell you.”

Four years after Donald Trump, a long-shot candidate up against many more experienced Republicans, blew up the expectations for how a candidate is expected to behave in a debate, he will loom over the 20 Democrats who take the stage in Miami this week.

In the minds of many Democratic voters, the criteria for judging whom they like over the next two nights will be as much about how they imagine a candidate will stand up to Trump’s unorthodox bullying in televised confrontations in the fall of 2020 as about position papers and experience.

“People view these as gladiator contests,” said Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican debate coach who worked for John McCain and Mitt Romney; neither competed directly with Trump but were both objects of his taunts. “They want to know who is the best person to go into the arena with Trump.”

Trump landed like a fireball on the first Republican debate stage in 2015, eliciting loud boos that turned into laughs from the audience as he made clear through his blunt and unapologetic style that he represented something completely different from the long roster of elected officials playing by the rules.

He was not a particularly skilled debater and did not win every debate. But his performances, as a whole, set the chaotic tone for the Republican primaries.

“In debates, what really stood out to me is just how different he sounds,” said Philippe Reines, who played Trump in mock debate sessions with Hillary Clinton in 2016. “He has the vocabulary of a fifth grader. But to some people, that is normal talk. If you’re sick of political speak, normal talk is going to be appealing.”

Democrats who specialize in presidential debate prep said Trump succeeded because his shock-jock personality was well suited to the current media environment. When debates are covered in real time and voters are taking them in with play-by-play commentary on Twitter, the behavior of candidates onstage is dictated by the need for short, punchy moments that differentiate them from the pack. Trump did not create that dynamic, they said; he just benefited from it.

“Since the rise of contemporaneous coverage, there is a greater imperative to have a breakout moment in the very early minutes of the debate,” said Karen Dunn, a lawyer who helped oversee Clinton’s debate prep and is currently unaffiliated with any campaign.

But the ways that Trump was able to appeal to Republican primary voters do not necessarily translate to the other side of the aisle — or to anyone else.

“Trump has a super power, which is utter shamelessness that is hard for sane humans to replicate,” said Tim Miller, who served as a campaign adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, one of Trump’s opponents. “I think he has probably opened up a wider prism of possibilities in how a candidate could act in debates successfully. But I don’t know that we’ll see a lot of traditional politicians go that route.”

The field of Democratic candidates may be diverse in terms of race, gender and age. But what has emerged in the top tier is a group of conventional presidential candidates, all current or former elected officials. That lineup bucked a brief moment of expectation that someone — Mark Cuban, the billionaire; Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer — would emerge as a Democratic version of Trump.

Democratic strategists said that was a good thing for the party.

“You don’t beat him by matching him. You beat him by appealing to some of his voters,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “And you beat him because we’re able to turn out a lot of Democrats.”

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said that a better model for Democratic candidates to study on the debate stage would be President Barack Obama.

“The one lesson from Trump that Democrats may want to take to heart is the value of saying things clearly and unambiguously, not in nuanced shades of gray,” he said. “But it’s incumbent on any Democrat to appeal to a different set of values and completely avoid the clownishness.” He said that what a winning Democrat needs to project is the “return to the power of a good idea well expressed.”

Trump would not have to insert himself into the Democratic primary process for his presence to be felt in the air over two hot Miami nights. But it has at least been suggested that he could live-tweet the proceedings during his trip to Asia for a major international summit meeting with foreign leaders.

If he follows through, it would be a change from how Trump typically employs the medium — he more often reacts to coverage of events, rather than the events themselves. In 2016, he live-tweeted only one event, the vice-presidential debate, when he retweeted accounts that mocked Sen. Tim Kaine’s appearance.

Dunn said that if Trump chose to weigh in, it would be a gift to the candidates he targeted. “I would think the candidates would think, Terrific,” she said. “Nothing could be better than walking out of the debate with the president tweeting at me.” In terms of appearing to present a real threat and contrast to Trump, she said, “you couldn’t make the point better.”

The Republican National Committee is not outsourcing all of its rapid response to the president. The committee’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, will be in Miami during the debates, talking about the “socialist policies” promoted by the Democratic field, according to an organization official. The committee, officials said, is also planning to put out a response to the debates in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

That piece of the Republican response is more similar to how incumbents have outsourced reaction in the past.

“We, as a campaign, monitored and commented on statements that were made during debates,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser to Obama. “Occasionally, the president may have inserted a comment in a speech based on something that was said. But he wasn’t live-tweeting the other side’s race. He was busy with his day job.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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