ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
OK. If you've managed to hold off paying attention to the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign up until now, it's about to get a lot harder. It's time for the first debate - actually two debates. Twenty Democratic candidates are taking the stage in Miami tonight and tomorrow. NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow join us from underneath a palm tree somewhere in Miami or maybe just in a hotel room. Hi, Scott and Mara. How are you doing?
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: We are in...
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
DETROW: We are in the spin room.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK. Well...
LIASSON: Where it's air conditioned.
SHAPIRO: ...Let's start with who is going to be spinning you tonight because this is going to be many voters' first real introduction to the candidates. Scott, who's going to be on stage tonight and who tomorrow?
DETROW: We've got three senators - Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. We have four current or former House members. That's Beto O'Rourke, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan. We have New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Now, the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, wanted to avoid the idea of the undercard debate that you saw in 2016 with Republicans. So they've divided the field with random drawings. But the fact is of the top five in the polls, only one of them is on stage tonight, and that's Elizabeth Warren. So you have to wait till tomorrow night to see Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
SHAPIRO: OK. This is a bigger and more diverse field than we have ever seen as we've been saying for months. And, Mara, it's still so early in the campaign. There are 222 days until the Iowa caucuses. At this point in the race...
LIASSON: But who's counting?
SHAPIRO: But who's counting? At this point in the race, what actually matters? What are they trying to do?
LIASSON: Well, I think the most important thing to remember is that this is not a debate in the traditional sense of the word. This is a TV show. And Donald Trump understood that better than anyone else in 2016. The job of the candidates is to have a compelling 30-second or 60-second episode, moment, cameo, whatever you want to call it. The idea is that those moments should live on in cable news coverage day after day and especially for the...
SHAPIRO: Go viral as the kids say.
LIASSON: Yes - especially after - for the lower polling candidates, this is the way they're going to generate buzz, increase donations, move up in the poll ratings. And that is the only way that they're going to survive to participate in the next debates in the fall when the bar to qualify for those debates is much, much higher.
SHAPIRO: There won't be 20 people on stage for those.
SHAPIRO: OK. Scott, you've been talking to campaign representatives. What do they tell you they're trying to accomplish tonight?
DETROW: Well, we are in the very traditional part of presidential campaigns of the expectation setting.
SHAPIRO: Ah, yes.
DETROW: And you're hearing from a lot of campaigns. Look; you can't really have that many breakout moments. This isn't a real debate. As Mara said, this is a series of answers, one-minute answers at that. But there are still clear goals here. I think for a lot of the candidates at the very end of the stage - let's call them the 1 percenters - they're really just trying to do a baseline introduction of themselves. They want somebody on TV to go, oh, that person looks interesting. Let me find out more about them. Hang around as - because poll after poll shows that most Democratic voters overwhelmingly have not made up their minds and are not even close.
I think candidates like Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar who had national reputations and expected to be doing better than they are right now. I think those are the ones who are really feeling that pressure to have that breakout viral moment that Mara is talking about. Elizabeth Warren - she's going to be front and center tonight. And the more that she's talking about her policy plans and beyond that, the more other candidates are responding to her policy plans, the happier her campaign's going to be here.
SHAPIRO: There are probably going to be some attacks on President Trump tonight. And he says he thinks the debate will be very boring but that he has to watch. So, Mara, do you have any sense of what the president or his campaign might do to try to get some of the spotlight back?
LIASSON: Well, he's threatened to live tweet the debate. I don't know if he actually will. But the Trump campaign has done something very interesting to keep the spotlight on the president. They have bought today's YouTube masthead. That's the banners that live on the top of the YouTube homepage. If you look at YouTube right now, there is a Trump ad running with a message that says you can text vote to this number, and if you do that, then the Trump campaign, of course, will vacuum up all of your data.
But the idea is that this buying this kind of advertising is extremely expensive. It can cost anywhere from $500,000 to a million dollars a day or more. And according to Tara McGowan who's a digital strategist - Democratic digital strategist - this is the way that Trump can run a national campaign, keep his name in the mix, while the Democrats are just sorting everything out.
SHAPIRO: In our last 30 seconds, Scott, you mentioned that Joe Biden won't be on stage tonight but because he has been the early front-runner, how much do you anticipate he'll factor into what we hear from this first group of candidates?
DETROW: A lot. He's far ahead in the polls. The polls are very early, but he's leading them by wide margins. The classic way to claw up in name recognition and attention is to attack the front-runner. Expect a little bit of that tonight. Biden's campaign is ready for it. They've said repeatedly we know everyone else is looking for their moments. Vice President Biden doesn't need a moment.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Detrow and Mara Liasson in Miami where the Democratic presidential candidates are holding their first debate tonight. Thanks to you both.
DETROW: Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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