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MSNBC Panel Asks How Much Dems Should (or Shouldn’t) Focus on Trump in First Big Debates

On MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, guest panelists Cornell Belcher and Phillippe Reines advised the 20 Democratic candidates attending the party’s first 2020 primary debates to focus primarily on their own message, not President Donald Trump’s.

Host Chris Hayes said since everyone is already in agreement on Trump himself, focusing too much on him could be a “wasted opportunity because everyone already agrees.”

“I would say, don’t talk about Trump,” Belcher told Hayes, before emphasizing that this advice is especially important for campaigns that have yet to break out of the low single digits in polling. “You have to talk about yourself, you guys, you got to make the case, you have to have a moment here that breaks through, that’s about you, because most of the Democratic primary universe, they have very little idea of you unless your name is Joe Biden or Senator [Bernie] Sanders. If you’re one of those candidates sitting at two or three percent support, I would not waste a moment of my time talking about Donald Trump, but talk about me and why I should be the president..”

Reines also advised candidates to lean heavily on their stump speech lines and rehearsed policy soundbites.

“For all intents and purposes there’s going to be an 11th person on stage both nights, it’s going to be Donald Trump,” he noted. “I think ideally your game plan is to go up there and say what you would say on any other day, whether it is in South Carolina, Iowa, Florida because you have a message. The point is, you want to keep repeating it so it resonates and it actually people hear it and absorb it. If you’re going up there tomorrow night saying something completely different than you do otherwise, you have a problem. Either what you’re saying normally isn’t working or you can’t be disciplined enough.”

Belcher pointed out that the competition for the 20 candidates on the Democratic primary debates Wednesday and Thursday nights will be the people standing next to them, not the man in the White House.

“What distinguishes you is how you contrast yourself from other people on the stage, you’re not running against Donald Trump right now,” Belcher said. At some point, you have to contrast yourself from whoever’s in front of you. If you’re a centrist Democrat, you better be contrasting yourself to one of them or even to a certain extent Joe Biden, you have to take away support from him and come away from who’s in your lane.”

Hayes, however, pushed back on this idea of intra-party “lanes” being a strategic factor in primaries.

“I think I learned the lesson from the [2016] Republican race was don’t think about lanes,” Hayes countered. “What I mean here is that the way I think voters will see this is ‘Show, don’t tell,’ as opposed to saying: ‘Here’s why I could beat Trump.’ If you sparkle, if you’re good, if you’re compelling, if your message is strong: that shows you’re a good candidate. To me, much more important than almost anything else is to perform in such a way that you are memorable and impressive.”

Watch the video above, via MSNBC.

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