Presidential debate blunders, for better or worse, can determine the fate of a candidate seeking the White House. A cringe-worthy gaffe or unforced error on national television can alter a race or shift momentum away from a candidate ― sometimes even for good. Rick Perry’s “oops” or Al Gore’s constant sighing are just two examples.
Next Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, each of the 20 Democrats will square off against nine of their peers at the first 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate. The crowded field has already seen plenty of infighting ― from this week’s spat between Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Vice President Joe Biden to growing tensions between Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Things are likely to get even more intense in the Miami heat.
Sharing a stage with nine other people will be no easy task. The candidates must hone their lengthy campaign speeches down to a 60-second pitch, stay focused on their message, appear presidential, and, above all, avoid committing a damaging self-own.
Veterans of recent presidential debates offered tips this week to Democrats about to participate in their first debate. After all, who better to ask for advice on avoiding a misstep than some of the very same people who made them?
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, gave life to criticism that he was too young and inexperienced during a February 2016 GOP debate after delivering the same line three different times in a feisty exchange with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). “There it is,” Christie responded after Rubio’s third refrain, eliciting laughter from the audience. The gaffe later earned him the name “Robot Rubio” and severely cost him in the New Hampshire primary, a contest he never recovered from.
Asked if he had any advice for Democratic presidential hopefuls next week, Rubio smirked and said: “When you get attacked by your opponent, don’t repeat your answer three times.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the first person who took a swing against Donald Trump on a presidential debate stage. After Trump refused to commit to supporting the eventual GOP nominee in August 2015, Paul raised the possibility that Trump could eventually support Hillary Clinton or run as an independent. “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” Paul charged at the time.
But Trump easily turned the tables on Paul, foreshadowing how quickly he dispensed with the rest of the GOP field on his eventual path to the nomination. “Well, I’ve given him plenty of money,” he said, a line that drew laughter from the audience.
Responding to a question about whether Democrats should emulate his strategy onstage and immediately target Biden, the front-runner in their primary race, Paul said, “It didn’t work, did it?”
You get 30 seconds if you’re lucky. How do you stand out? Be funny. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
However, the Kentucky senator, who is now a close ally of Trump, counseled that lower-ranking candidates still ought to “go after the leader” to gain media attention and political support. He further warned Democrats not to drift too far to the left in their policy positions, something he argued would help reelect Trump.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another former GOP presidential contender who had experience battling Trump onstage, said he expected Democrats to play nice during their first debate and instead aim their fire at the president.
“In many ways, the Democratic primary seems to be a battle to see who is more anti-Trump,” Cruz said, adding he expected the debates to go thusly: “‘I hate President Trump.’ ‘No, no, no, I really, really hate President Trump.’ ‘No, I really, really, really hate President Trump.’”
Cruz offered a word of advice to Democratic candidates, too: “Speak from the heart, listen to the people and have fun.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who once said Republicans would get “destroyed” if they nominated Trump for president before ultimately becoming one of his closest allies on Capitol Hill, counseled 2020 Democrats to use humor as a way to “stand out” on the debate stage.
“You get 30 seconds if you’re lucky. How do you stand out? Be funny,” said Graham, who delivered lots of wisecracks and one-liners on- and offstage during his brief 2016 presidential candidacy.
But Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who sometimes came across as awkward on the campaign trail, had an opposite take.
“Don’t try to be funny,” he said this week when asked if he had any advice for 2020 Democratic contenders ahead of the debates in Miami.
The Utah senator then attempted a joke of his own. “Don’t lie, but whatever you do, don’t blurt out the truth,” he said, before quickly adding, “No, I’m kidding. That was advice given to someone appearing before a House investigative committee.”
His actual counsel to Democrats, though, focused on how candidates can better manage their image on television.
“Don’t spend time looking at other speakers. Get your message across and have a clear, compelling message of your own,” Romney said.