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Democrats prep for debate: Watch the clock, no cursing, who will strike first

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Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders.
Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. -
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The top Democratic candidates for president will take the debate stage together on Thursday night, and each member of the diverse field is trying to find a way to stand out of the pack.

Among them, Joe Biden hunkered down for mock debates, Bernie Sanders has no interest in practice sessions and entrepreneur Andrew Yang was planning on trying to stay loose by playing some basketball.

Here's a look at how they and the other seven candidates who will take the stage are preparing for the ABC-sponsored face off in Houston, the third debate among the Democratic hopefuls.

Biden: Ready to defend

While the former vice president will share the stage for the first time with strong contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden's advisers say he's more likely to face direct attacks from other candidates who are seeking to make a splash. Biden has been studying his rivals' records and is ready to defend his.

"Regardless of who is or isn't attacking Joe Biden, Biden is focused on running his race," one adviser said.

Nonetheless, some of his strategies are clearly geared toward contrasting his record and plans from sweeping changes proposed by challengers on the left — Warren and Bernie Sanders. Biden intends to stress there's a difference between rhetoric and results. "Running for president is about making people's lives better, and that only happens if the change proposed becomes reality," the adviser said.

Warren: Won't shoot first

Aides say she has no plans to go after Biden and wants to use the nationally televised forum to continue to introduce herself to voters, but they note that Warren expects to be asked about their past disagreements. She'll defend herself if attacked, but has no plans to fire first, the aides said.

Biden, a longtime former Delaware senator, and Warren, a consumer advocate and former bankruptcy lawyer, have clashed at times over the years, notably on the issue of credit cards and their role in driving some holders into debt. Many banks and credit card companies are headquartered in Delaware, and Biden was a reliable advocate for those firms on Capitol Hill.

If needed, Warren will stress differences between her and the other candidates, said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is pro-Warren.

"If Biden paints a picture of a conservative world and she paints a progressive one, it's not a punch, but there is a clear contrast," Green said.

Sanders: Someone has his back

His advisers acknowledge the first on-stage match-up of Biden and Warren will get much of the focus — Sanders was next to Biden for thefirst debate and next to pal Warren in the second — but he'll work to draw attention to his new policy proposals.

Sanders, who doesn't do mock debates to prepare, is ready for the more moderate candidates to go on the attack against him.

"You saw in the second debate, some people tried to come at him," campaign manager Faiz Shakir said. "He was prepared and he was ready."

He and fellow progressive Warren had each other's backs in the last debate, and Shakir said he expects that will be the case again.

"The situation is still the same as last time in that you have in Elizabeth Warren, someone who's been a good ally with Bernie on a lot of these key fights," Shakir said.

Harris: Trump 'hatred'

She made a splash in the first debate, sponsored by NBC, with a pointedattack on Biden, but Harris is planning to target President Donald Trump in the third debate.

Harris will "focus on bringing the country together by defeating him and unifying Americans around solutions to our common challenges," said campaign spokesman Ian Sams. "She'll make the connection between his hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country."

She will also draw attention to issues that impact a broad part of the electorate, like gun violence, living costs and healthcare, Sams said.

Buttigieg: Finding balance

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, headed down to Houston for debate preparation on Tuesday, and is aiming to strike a delicate balance: Scoring points against his opponents without veering into personal attacks.

Buttigieg said he wasn't interested in a "canned, made-for-TV moment in order to, you know, he the talk of the town that night."

He's looking for ways to differentiate himself from his opponents on policy issues rather than perceived flaws in their background or record. He road-tested that approach over the past week with mild critiques of Sanders on economic policies he says are unrealistic.

"For the Houston debate, we have to draw some sharper contrasts for people to show why Mayor Pete has such broad-based appeal, how he's different from some of the other candidates on the stage," said Jess O'Connell, a senior Buttigieg adviser.

Yang: The jam

The entrepreneur was working on getting in the right headspace by playing a game of basketball the day before the Houston debate.

Yang's risen in the polls since the first faceoff in June, and his campaign is readying him to expect fire from other candidates.

"We'd like the debate to be about issues and problems actually facing America and less of a reality TV show," a senior campaign official told NBC News. "One of the worst things you see candidates do is try to get their viral attack line in."

But, the official said, Yang will be doing something "big" and "unprecedented" on debate night, declining to provide specific details.

Booker: Unity pitch

The New Jersey senator — who's been known to do pushups and bicep curls during debate preps —is looking at the forum as an opportunity to lay out his vision, with an emphasis on unity, according to a campaign aide.

"The idea of uniting Americans together is something that is certainly what we want to convey on the debate stage," the aide told NBC News.

He's also working on adapting to the time constraints by making sure he is "being concise but direct."

O'Rourke: No stunts, no swears

Returning to his home state of Texas, the former congressman is "not going to engage in stunts and one-liners, or indulge attempts by the moderators to pit candidates against each other for the benefit of good TV," a campaign spokesman said. "The seriousness of the moment demands more than that."

The spokesman said O'Rourke "will be communicating the same message he's been bringing to the trail the last few weeks," including calling out Trump and offering solutions on gun violence.

But O'Rourke, who's drawn attention on social media forcursing on the campaign trail, will have to be family friendly. The Democratic National Committee sent a letter at ABC's request to candidates this week asking them to refrain from swearing on stage, DNC communications director Xochi Hinojosa confirmed to NBC News.

Castro: Watching the clock

The other Texan in race arrived in Houston with his team on Sunday, and is prepping the same way he did for the first two debates — with mock debates and practice on explaining his policies within the allotted time limits.

While the rules say candidates will have more time to speak than in the first two debates, Castro's hoping the limit will apply equally to all 10 candidates. In the last debate, he had about 10 and a half minutes of speaking time compared with Biden's 20.

"I hope the folks at ABC are determining how they're going to make sure that all of the candidates that are on that stage that met the threshold are able to get roughly equal time. If they don't do that, that is a failure," Castro told reporters this week.

Klobuchar: Pragmatic

The Minnesota senator has been lagging in the polls, and her campaign is hoping her message of policy pragmatism and Democratic unity will shine through in her performance Thursday.

That approach was on full display this past weekend in New Hampshire, where Klobuchar pushed an "optimistic economic and justice agenda" to a fired-up room of Democrats.