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The Democratic Debate Lineups Are Set. Here’s What to Expect.

The Democratic Debate Lineups Are Set. Here’s What to Expect.

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WASHINGTON — Two nights, four hours, so, so many candidates: the first Democratic presidential debates will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. A former vice president on stage with a self-help author. Three female candidates on one night, three female candidates the next — more than have even been on the debate stage at once. A 37-year-old squaring off against two septuagenarians.

With Friday’s announcement of the lineups for the debates, set for June 26 and 27, the political stakes and intriguing subplots of the 2020 Democratic primary race came into sharper focus. Candidates, strategists and party officials quickly began analyzing the lineups: Is it better to debate on the first night, even if most of the top-tier candidates are on the second night? Or is it better to debate on the second night and try to draw blood against one of those top candidates?

The first night will be Senator Elizabeth Warren’s to lose, as she faces off against nine lower-polling candidates desperate for breakout moments. But the second night is potentially more consequential, a showdown among four of the biggest names in the 2020 presidential race: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris.

Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Mr. Sanders, said: “This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary.”

The stakes are especially high for candidates like Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who all entered the race with political promise but have struggled to catch fire with voters. The three will vie for airtime in the first debate against candidates who have little momentum, like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, as well as against Ms. Warren, who has edged ahead of her rivals in part because of the policy substance of her campaign.

Yet Ms. Warren faces challenges too. Her placement offers a larger share of the spotlight, a chance to soak up extra time on the biggest night yet of the campaign. But it also means she will not get a chance to contrast herself with her top rivals — with, say, Mr. Biden and the credit card industry — and that if anyone on the first night wants to punch up at a top-tier candidate, they will be taking aim at her.

Mr. Buttigieg, who has climbed out of obscurity and risen in the polls, will have a national stage to showcase his generational change argument while standing aside Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders — who are each nearly 40 years older than he is.

Ms. Harris, who will face off against those three men and six other candidates, has an opportunity to present her contrasting vision of electability based on a multiracial coalition against Mr. Biden’s argument that he can win back white male Rust Belt voters who cast ballots for Mr. Trump.

The selection of the candidate lineups on Friday unfolded like a scene from The Apprentice, the former NBC reality show hosted by the man who is now the president. Representatives from the campaigns gathered into an 11th floor conference room at the network’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. Arrayed on a table were two boxes — wrapped in white paper with gold dots on it — labeled “2% and above” and “below 2%” to correspond to the candidates’ polling status.

Each of the candidates’ names were written on pieces of paper, folded in half, and placed in the appropriate box. The names were drawn from the boxes one by one and affixed onto one of two easels with tape.

Big, multicandidate debates are enormously challenging to prepare for.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who succeeded in breaking through during the 2012 Republican primary debates, said it was important to smile and look relaxed throughout the evening, “because cameras can pick you up at any time.”

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