6 Things to Know Before the Next Round of Debates

From the mini-dramas you missed last time to who's up against whom, here's what to watch for this week.

Elizabeth Warren Debate
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Tuesday, July 30th and Wednesday, July 31st, 20 candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination will attempt to squish their policies into memorable soundbites at the second round of debates. Night one features Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney, and Steve Bullock. Night two will put Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inselee, and Bill de Blasio in conversation. These follow the first Democratic leadership debates in June that broke viewership records, and brought drama that will surely have people tuning in again.

Moderated by CNN’s Don Lemon, Dana Bash, and Jake Tapper, and hosted in Michigan — a state Trump barely won in 2016 — the second Democratic debates begin at 8PM ET and will be broadcast on CNN and Telemundo (for streaming, check out CNN’s app or CNN.com).

While quips come easily — will Beto jump on a podium? Is the push-up contest A Thing? — what’s more important is that the second debate isn’t just an opportunity to anxiety-snack on chips and guacamole while wondering about the fate of our country. It’s a chance for voters to listen closer as they zero in on whom they’ll be throwing their dollars, support, and, eventually, votes behind come primary time. It’s a fork-in-the-road moment, too: Candidates who might not have the support to make it to the next debates in September will throw their last punches in an attempt to crack the public consciousness as the field narrows, and serious contenders rise to the top.

In other words? Not a thing to skip if you can help it. From candidate Twitter hot takes to policies just announced this weekend, here are a few things to keep an eye on as you tune in.

1. The field of candidates has already changed.

Eric Swalwell, representative for California’s 15th District, became the first candidate to drop out of the race after the first debate failed to give him a crucial bump, despite an impassioned and well-received moment about gun reform. (“I have no regrets,” he wrote).

Meanwhile, billionaire Tom Steyer (one of the country’s largest political donors) decided to run, forgoing the opportunity to be seen as a hero for using the $100 million he’ll reportedly spend on his bid to solve, as strategist Laura Olin pointed out, pretty much any issue he could be campaigning on.

If you’re wondering where Steyer is, he didn’t qualify for this debate after all. But your eyes do not deceive you — there are still 20 candidates taking the stage this week: Steve Bullock, who didn’t qualify for the June debates, is in for this one, bringing the number back up.

2. A Cory Booker-Joe Biden face-off.

Last week at the NAACP conference, Cory Booker referred to Joe Biden as the “proud architect of a failed system,” discussing his record on criminal justice. Biden’s team wasted no time responding via Twitter, complete with bullet points, and citing the debate structure’s strict 30-second-only rebuttal time as their reason for jumping into the conversation immediately. Given Biden’s current standing, and Booker’s desire to find a standout moment of his own, a continuation of their back-and-forth will almost certainly make it to the debate stage.

3. Gillibrand will call out sexism in the party.

Last week, The New Yorker revisited Al Franken’s exit from the Senate, subsequently dragging what some perceive as Gillibrand’s role in his departure back into headlines. Gillibrand, who fought to be heard during the last debate, didn’t mince words when discussing the Democratic party and sexual misconduct with a group of female union members in Iowa City last week. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m really sick of it. I’m so freaking sick of it,” she said, according to the Iowa Starting Line. “I can’t tell you how angry I am that Democrats, Democrats turn a blind eye to sexual assault, sexual harassment, and any reforms that value women in the workplace.” Between recent headlines and ongoing allegations of sexual assault and harassment against the president, it gives Gillibrand a window to bring this view to the stage.

4. Warren and Sanders will finally square off — nicely.

Pundits are already calling Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appearing on the debate stage together for the first time a “match up,” given the two are considered the most progressive candidates in a large field, and will have to distinguish themselves when some of their policies overlap. They also made a pact before entering the race that they wouldn’t go after each other on the campaign trail. What’s most exciting isn’t the possibility of watching them take unexpected swipes — it’s how they’ll manage to differentiate themselves. In fact, the two have already exchanged compliments and maintained a steady focus on their own plans ahead of the debate. When asked what he would expect from sharing a debate stage with Warren, Sanders responded, “intelligence.”

5. A Harris-Biden re-match.

After having what pundits referred to as a “breakout moment” in the last debate, Harris and Biden are back onstage together for round two, with some notable mountains to climb for each of them. While Harris delivered the debate-making blow last go round, she has been inconsistent on her policies, even some that came up during the first debate, like eliminating private insurance. With the added pressure of other candidates potentially coming for her following her last debate performance, the second debate is an opportunity for Harris to double-down on her skills as a master debater while clarifying her record and plans. (Like her just-announced plan for student loan debt and Pell Grants that was immediately met with confusion.)

For his part, Biden has undergone a total strategy overhaul, the Washington Examiner reports. Apparently he's ditching his “nonaggression” campaign promise, and nostalgia for the Obama administration, to prioritize focusing on what his own presidency would look like. It’s worth noting that a meaty Biden profile appeared in The New York Times Magazine last week, another opportunity to get in front of audiences and talk openly about his age, record, and candidacy. We’ll be watching to see how these two find their footing in the sequel.

6. One for the (Old Town) road.

In an ongoing fever dream of political headlines that seem to be generated from a pop-culture word association game, The Daily Beast reported that Buzzfeed’s Internet Live event was in talks to include Pete Buttigieg ... until Lil Nas X rejected a proposal to collaborate with Mayor Pete on a version of “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X was supposedly not keen on being seen as endorsing one candidate, but it’s a fair reminder, regardless: Pop culture and politics do intersect (just think of the memes) — but sometimes it’s better to stay focused on the issues.

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