What 2020 Democrats learned from their first debate and how some are sharpening their attacks for the second

What 2020 Democrats learned from their first debate and how some are sharpening their attacks for the second
The 20 Democrats vying for the presidency have been prepping for their second bout by fine-tuning their messaging, sharpening their attacks and retooling their policy proposals. Copyright Robin Muccari NBC News; Getty Images
Copyright Robin Muccari NBC News; Getty Images
By NBC News and Dartunorro Clark and Garrett Haake and Ali Vitali and Shaquille Brewster and Julia Jester and Amanda Golden and Micki Fahner and Maura Barrett and Josh Lederman and Priscilla Thompson with NBC News Politics
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The 20 Democrats appearing on the stage this week have been hard at work fine-tuning their messaging.


Former Vice President Joe Biden is done being gracious. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to hit reset. Sen. Amy Klobuchar plans on leaning in to stand out. Sen. Cory Booker is banking on being himself. And Marianne Williamson — she's sticking with love.

The 20 Democrats vying for the presidency have been prepping for their second bout by fine-tuning their messaging, sharpening their attacks and retooling their policy proposals. This week's Democratic debate — hosted by CNN — will be held at the Fox Theater in Detroit over two nights, July 30 and 31. Ten candidates will be on the stage each night. CNN's Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper will moderate the debate.

However, not everyone at the first debate last month, hosted by NBC News, will be on stage this time. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California dropped outof the race this month. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who did not qualify for the NBC debate, will take his spot at the CNN debate.

Here's how the candidates are preparing for this round:

Joe Biden: "Not going to be as polite"

The front-runner of the race has fielded a litany of attacks from his fellow Democrats since the first debate, particularly from Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose stand-out confrontation with the vice president boosted her campaign.

This time around, Biden — as he put it last week — is "not going to be as polite." The seasoned statesman is preparing to directly spar with Harris again as well as other contenders hoping to blast him to improve their standing among voters. Ahead of the debate, Biden has attacked Medicare-for-All proposals and worked to maintain his support among black voters.

Bernie Sanders: Shadow-boxing

The Vermont senator is planning to take off the gloves at this debate, aides told NBC News. Sanders' advisers wanted him to be more aggressive in the first debate, particularly drawing a direct contrast with Biden, but he never did.

The two, however, will not be on stage the same night this week. That's why Sanders, who is on night one, may use former Rep. John Delaney or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as proxies to pull Biden's ideology on stage if attacked by the two centrists. "There may be other candidates who carry some of the same arguments against Medicare-for-All that Biden would," campaign manager Faiz Shakir told NBC News.

His campaign also said not to expect any fireworks between him and Warren, who is ideologically similar to Sanders and also surging in polls.

Pete Buttigieg: A second chance

The millennial mayor, who will take the stage on night one, is hunkered down in Detroit with his top communications and policy aides, campaign officials told NBC News.

Buttigieg faced an unexpected — but critical — moment in the first debate as he grappled with the shooting and killing of an African American man by a white police officer in his hometown.

Now, Buttigieg is hoping to use the second debate to introduce himself to voters who don't yet know him or the various policy proposals that he has unveiled on the campaign trail.

Cory Booker: Be yourself

Booker, who has remained relatively stagnant in the polls, plans to be himself when the New Jersey senator hits the stage for night two of the debate, campaign aides said.

"Honestly people are still getting to know Cory Booker … be yourself is our best advice to him and when he does that, people like him and end up voting for him," Addisu Demissie, Booker's campaign manager, said.

Booker's campaign said his strategy will be twofold — arguing that he's the right candidate to take on Trump and making the case that he has a record of getting progressive policies passed. Booker's campaign also said that he will not be scared to attack Biden directly on the debate stage after having criticized the former vice president on the campaign trail.

"He's not somebody who's afraid to speak truth to power when it demands it," Demissie said.

Julian Castro: Maintaining the momentum

The former Housing and Urban Development Secretary had a standout moment at the first debate when he sparred with former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke over immigration. For the second debate — appearing on the second night — Castro is prepping with the same campaign team, staging mock debates, practicing getting his policy points under one minute, and focusing on issues that "every American family cares about."

"I want to make sure I speak to them about health care, education, job opportunities," Castro told NBC News, "making sure that America leads around the world again."


His campaign plans to focus on drawing distinctions between Castro's policies and those of other candidates as well as Trump.

Beto O'Rourke: No one puts Beto in a corner

The former congressman hit a snag in the first debate after sparring with Castro.

At the core of O'Rourke's second debate strategy is to project strength and confidence on stage, multiple campaign advisers and outside allies told NBC News.

O'Rourke is not naturally an aggressive debater and often cautions against attack politics on the campaign trail. Aides said he is prepared to more forcefully defend himself when he takes the stage on night one, though he is unlikely to come out swinging if unprovoked.

"Beto will definitely be ready this time for those who want to use him to make their own points," a senior O'Rourke adviser told NBC News.


Kirsten Gillibrand: Elbows out

This second debate could be a make or break moment for the New York Senator's campaign. In the first debate, Gillibrand's campaign staff had prepped her to insert herself in order to get more speaking time, but she only ending up speaking roughly seven minutes.

For this second debate, her campaign is prepping her to fight for her values, an advisor to the campaign told NBC News.

Gillibrand is in Troy, New York having multiple debate sessions ahead of her appearance on night one of the debate. These sessions have included podiums and one or two staffers taking the role of other candidates, delivering quotes and ideas of her rivals.

Amy Klobuchar: Pivot to the center

Klobuchar's campaign told NBC News that the senator will be seeking to emphasize the contrast that her candidacy presents, which will pit her directly against Sanders and Warren and the sweeping, structural changes they're proposing. Klobuchar is appearing on night one with the two progressive senators.

The Minnesota senator will likely lean into the policy proposals she pushes on the campaign trail — ones that can enjoy broad support and not what she considers overly lofty ideas that she doesn't think can get passed. For instance, she'll push universal healthcare over Medicare For All.


Marianne Williamson: Love is (still) the message

The best-selling author and lecturer is doing debate prep with her campaign aides in Detroit. (Fun fact: She lived there for eight years.) Her campaign even tapped former Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., to do a Sanders impersonation, her campaign told NBC News.

This time her team is helping her prepare to expand on her positions that she was not able to explain in the first debate. "Green grapes are a big help in getting through prep," Patricia Ewing, her campaign spokesperson, told NBC News.

Willamson, who is appearing on night one, told USA Today in an interview earlier this week that after she was mocked at the first debate she plans to tweak her performance and not her message.

"I hope that this time my delivery will be more aligned with my substance," she told the paper. "I don't regret the substance of anything I said, but I understand that my delivery made me vulnerable to mockery."

Bill de Blasio: Likable enough?

In the first debate, the New York City mayor showed off his sharp elbows as he interrupted his foes to give a staunch defense of progressive values and take direct shots at Trump. This time around, his campaign said that de Blasio — who has had high unfavorability among Democrats in some polls — will adjust his performance.


"There are legitimate contrasts between the candidates and their positions in this battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party," Jaclyn Rothenberg, de Blasio's press secretary, said in a statement to NBC News.

De Blasio, Rothenberg said, is doing test-runs of his opening and closing remarks, running drills and honing responses to specific candidates. His debate snacks of choice include chips and guacamole, mixed nuts and water.

Tim Ryan: Active listening

The Ohio congressman has employed two new debate prep tactics since his lackluster performance at the first debate - watching "game tape" of his foes from the first debate and leaning into active listening.

Ryan gained momentum last week after two prominent African American Biden supporters in South Carolina defected their allegiance to his campaign. He plans on sticking to his working-class economic message while in Detroit. His team is not concerned about the composition of candidates on the stage to interrupt this time around.

Ryan feels "unbelievably confident," Brad Bauman, a Ryan campaign advisor, told NBC News. Ryan, who often promotes mindfulness on the campaign trail, has been particularly focused on using the meditative approach to ground himself before he takes the stage on night two. He's using the skill to answer questions in a way that makes "the right case to the American people," Bauman said.


John Delaney: Strategic interruption

For John Delaney, strategic interruption is key to his debate strategy. Also key - attacking Senator Sanders head on, especially when it comes to Medicare for All.

Delaney has been working on "loudly and proudly" drawing distinctions between his policies and those of other candidates, specifically Sanders and Medicare for All, according to his campaign spokesman Michael Hopkins.

"There's a very big difference between Senator Warren and Senator Sanders — Senator Sanders is not a Democrat," Hopkins told NBC News. "He uses the Democratic Party as a vessel of convenience." For the Delaney campaign, debate success would be convincing America that Medicare for All is the wrong path forward.

Delaney is taking a lesson from the first Democratic debates in choosing moments of interjection wisely.

"Now it's trying to balance seizing on that moment while also knowing the rules this time will punish you for interrupting, and so we've got to figure out when it makes sense for us to maybe risk interrupting so that we can make our point, and knowing we may lose time on the other side," said Hopkins. "If Medicare for All comes up, you can guarantee that we will interject whether it's our turn to talk or not."


Hopkins noted Delaney has been spending time with his family to remind himself why he does this, and plans to show a more personal side to himself during the debate because it's "not so much about what you say, but about making people feel."

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