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story.lead_photo.caption The Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is shown, Friday, June 21, 2019, in Miami. The Democratic Presidential Debates are scheduled to take place June 26 and 27, with 10 candidates competing each night. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI -- Democratic presidential candidates will converge on the debate stage in Miami today as the campaign enters a new -- and likely more contentious -- phase.

Given the large field, the debate will be split over two nights with 10 candidates appearing each evening. It's the highest-profile opportunity yet for many White House hopefuls to offer their vision for the country.

Elizabeth Warren will take center stage at the debate's opening night. The senator from Massachusetts' stream of policy proposals has helped her campaign gain ground, and she's the sole top-tier candidate who will appear at today's debate. Widely viewed as a talented debater, Warren is well positioned to showcase her strengths, strategists say.

"I don't think anyone else on that night has her level of skill and her level of experience in this format," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. "I think she should look at this as an opportunity to really shine and come out of the first night as the one that is dominating the conversation."

Yet Warren is still likely to face challenges. The other candidates on stage today aren't as well known and could use the moment to take aggressive stances against Warren in an effort to find a breakout moment.

"She's liable to have a target on her back and a lot of people potentially coming after her on that stage," said Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of the liberal political action committee Democracy for America. "But on the other hand, that will let people see how she handles attacks and can fend them off."

Beyond Warren, the candidates who will debate today are Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Reps. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and John Delaney of Maryland, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.

One possible split centers on "Medicare for All," the single-payer health plan introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate, and supported by Warren and others. But some candidates are not fully on board, preferring more incremental changes. Delaney has been especially vocal in his criticism.

With so many White House hopefuls on stage, it will likely be difficult to dive too deep on any given issue. NBC News, which is hosting the debate, said candidates will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups. They will be allowed closing statements but no openers.

All the candidates are competing ahead of a major fundraising deadline that will have lasting implications. The end of the second fundraising quarter on Sunday gives candidates a chance to make a splash with strong numbers ahead of the mid-July deadline to report that information to the Federal Election Commission.

A strong debate performance also promises to fuel more donations, which is critical to the candidates' ability to participate in future debates. The Democratic National Committee is enforcing more stringent requirements for participating in the presidential primary debates this fall, so candidates who are struggling to gain a foothold may not have another similar opportunity on a nationally televised stage unless they are able to boost their fundraising numbers and standing in the polls.

"For some of them, this might be their best opportunity to land a blow," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist.

The debate's second night Thursday features more of the leading Democrats in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden will stand at center stage with Sanders at his left and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., at his right. Biden has come under fire from fellow Democrats after recently recalling that the Senate was once a more civil place, pointing to his work with two segregationist former senators.

The remarks elicited condemnation from his rivals, notably Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who raised questions about Biden's understanding of the history of segregation. Booker, who was among Biden's sharpest critics, called on him to apologize.

A memo released by Booker's campaign ahead of the debate said his goal was "straightforward: Cory will look to introduce himself to voters just tuning in to the race."

Several of the candidates went to Florida early to raise money or court voters in the critical battleground state. Buttigieg held two Florida fundraisers Monday night and stayed in Florida for debate preparation. Warren, meanwhile, was in the state Tuesday to campaign for her new proposal to boost election security.

Information for this article was contributed by Sara Burnett, David Bauder, Alexandra Jaffe and Elana Schor of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/26/2019

Print Headline: Democrats gathering for debates

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