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Debate Playbook: Here’s What Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and the Other Candidates Need to Do

Democratic Debate Guide For Candidates

There will be ten Democratic presidential candidates facing off at Thursday night’s ABC News debate, and while it’s a pivotal moment for all of them, the stakes are highest for Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

Here’s what each candidate needs to do in Houston tonight, in order of their current place in the polls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden is going to be a natural target due to his frontrunner status, but his durability thus far indicates he can weather attacks if he doesn’t shoot himself in the foot, and maybe even if he does. My most fervent hope for Biden is that he fixes his health care plan to cover the millions of people it leaves out, preferably with the addition of an income-indexed individual mandate tax penalty, coupled with automatic enrollment in something like Medicaid.

Barring that, Biden should resist false attacks on Medicare for All, and instead contrast all of the Democrats’ plans with the GOP goal of ripping health care away from people so they die. Deflecting attacks from his opponents onto Trump is his best bet. Attacking Warren will be especially tricky, because contrary to what you may have heard, she’s very likeable, and so is he. Biden should avoid attacking Warren unless she hits him first.

And he should definitely not focus on her corporate work, as has been reported he will. That orange was squeezed dry a few months ago when Warren disclosed that work, to little effect. Biden and company have also been previewing a line of attack on Warren’s plan-based appeal, which could be effective if applied with a light touch and a focus on pragmatism. But a big swing on this could leave Biden’s chin exposed for a big counterpunch like the one Warren delivered to John Delaney in July. Proceed with caution.

Biden’s biggest assets are his charm and his nimbleness with his own record, both of which can serve him well in fending off attacks. If he does feel the need to be the aggressor with his rivals, he could press his greatest advantage in this primary: his dominance with black voters. If Biden can highlight that without putting his foot in his mouth, it could generate a big moment for him.

This line of attack could be especially effective against Bernie Sanders, who has a glass chin on this issue and could be thrown off his game by Biden asking why Sanders hasn’t connected with black Democrats, and reminding people about Sanders’ claim that people who aren’t comfortable voting for black candidates aren’t necessarily racist.

But all Biden really needs to do is keep his cool under fire, and keep hitting Trump.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Sanders will almost certainly go after Biden, but his real task is to figure out how to slow Warren’s momentum without violating their non-aggression pact. That’s tough to do with subtle policy contrasts like their differing student debt forgiveness plans and approaches to climate change. He can’t call her a copycat or hit her for seeding her presidential campaign with big-dollar Senate campaign donations without breaking their truce.

The best way Sanders can distinguish himself from Warren is to be aggressive in the ways that Warren has not thus far. He will no doubt try to land some big punches on Biden. Sanders is a very disciplined candidate, so he is well positioned to make hay out of Biden’s gaffes, but probably won’t because he sees himself as above that sort of thing.

Sanders will also likely spend a lot of time counterpunching at the seven other non-Warren candidates. This is all risky stuff; he can get hit back hard, or look like the bad guy for punching down on his rivals.

Less risky, though, would be attacking the moderators when warranted. One of his most winning moments at the last debate, from his base’s perspective, was his exchange with Jake Tapper over the relentless questions about taxing the middle class to pay for health care. Moments like that would further endear him, and it’s something Warren probably won’t do.

Sanders also needs to be more mindful of the questions being asked of him. For example, in his eagerness to discuss reproductive freedom at CNN’s climate change town hall, Sanders wound up appearing to place the burden for population control on poor women in developing nations. Sanders has also shown, on occasion, a lack of knowledge on key issues like abortion rights and health care, but the media’s own shallow understanding of these issues will likely work in his favor there.

Despite Warren’s surge, Sanders has shown a durability in the polls, so his tendency to steer every response into one of his stump speech flashcards could work in his favor. Let the other candidates worry about Warren, keep doing what works, and avoid what doesn’t.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Warren’s surge in the polls makes her the most attractive target on the stage, even more so than Biden. While the former VP has shown an ability to withstand blistering attacks and still maintain a commanding lead, Warren has not had to face off against the big kids in any of her previous debates. She’s got a lot to prove.

As with Sanders, Warren is limited in her ability to go after her most likely source of votes by her truce with Sanders. One thing she can do is answer a huge question that many voters — like myself — have about Warren.

Thus far, she has thrived in town hall settings that play to her anecdotal style and oratorical skill, but has not been put to the test in a debate setting. Donald Trump threw her badly off balance with his sustained attacks, and people want to know if she can take a punch, and land one. She should get many opportunities to answer that question. While there’s every chance that she’s ready for Biden, it’s the other seven Warren has to worry about, and her skills will be revealed in the end.

The other way Warren can show she’s a fighter is to sharpen her attacks on Trump, with a particular focus on his racism. If she can get in another iteration of her powerful call for Trump’s impeachment, that could make some news for her as well.

She could also go HAM on Bernie, and if she’s interested, see Harris, Senator Kamala.

California Senator Kamala Harris

Senator Harris has as much to prove as Warren does. She’s in single-digit fourth place, and has slipped in early states where she had been building momentum. Now is a good time for Harris to reassert herself.

The state of play for Kamala Harris is clear. Policy-wise, she has been shunted out of the progressive lane by her modified Medicare for All plan and attacks on Berniecare. While most of her post-debate bump migrated back to Biden when it became apparent he wasn’t faltering, lately her voters have been migrating to Warren.

Harris’s appeal as a candidate has always been as a fighter. Her biggest polling bumps came after the launch of her campaign, which had many people drooling over the prospect of her handling Trump the way she handled witnesses during Senate hearings — and after her tussle with Biden. But Biden’s ability to withstand that blow indicates he might not be her best target Thursday night. Plus, Harris would do well to inch closer to bide and policywise, or at least to the center between Biden and the Sanders wing.

So from a policy perspective, Harris would do well to focus on her strengths, like criminal justice reform and gun policy, and express openness to different ways of achieving universal health care.

More risky, but more rewarding, would be taking the fight to Sanders and Warren. As tempting as it is to go after their health care plans’ effect on taxes, Harris should avoid this subject because both candidates have practiced and well-received responses to this charge, and Harris’ health care plan is not the best.

But there’s a lot of rich territory Harris can cover with these two. On a policy level, Sanders has some vulnerability in his record on guns, and some under-covered gaffes about abortion rights. If she really wants to hit bone, Harris could bring up Sanders’ infamous rape essay and, as I suggested for Biden, his difficulty connecting with black voters. The under-the-radar controversy over Sanders’ use of the n-word in a 1997 book, for example, could be used to demonstrate the underpinnings of that difficulty.

Warren has a couple of vulnerabilities that haven’t been touched thus far in the campaign that Harris could exploit. Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry has been most ostentatiously used by Trump in a racist way, but her handling of it showed years worth of terrible judgment. And Warren has never accounted for how the GOP’s “approach to markets” outweighed their racism enough for her to remain in the Republican Party right through the meat of the racist southern strategy.

These are all risky gambits, but ones that would put Sanders and Warren to the test, and show the political knife skills that Harris supporters expect from her.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete has been steady at around five percent for a good long while, and has shown outsize fundraising strength. He’s got the support he needs to stay in the race for a good long while, and thus no real impetus to take wild swings.

His best bet is to look for opportunities to be the voice of reason when a fracas starts, and stay on-brand the rest of the time. This isn’t Pete’s moment to make a big move.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Yang’s biggest task will be living up to his campaign’s promise that the candidate will do something hugely historical at the debate. The other will be defending Universal Basic Income, the signature policy of his campaign. He’s most likely to face his hottest grilling from the moderators, not the other candidates.

Yang will probably do his best to excite the nerd army that’s propelling his upstart campaign, and maybe score some more points critiquing the debate itself.

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke

Congressman O’Rourke is at a severe disadvantage now thanks to ABC’s no cussing directive, but there are other ways he can make some headway, which he really needs to do.

In August, the Texas congressman saw his poll numbers buoyed by his response to the mass shooting in El Paso, and his willingness to bludgeon Trump’s racism. He should definitely do that — with fewer f-bombs — but that alone won’t break him out of the pack.

He’s also at that stage in polling where he has to keep half an eye on his VP prospects, so attacking Biden might not be his best move. But O’Rourke has a well-hidden advantage on the issue of health care.

At his first campaign event in March, O’Rourke caught my attention (one of the few times he has done so) by praising Medicare for All, but contrasting it with other approaches to universal health care that are orders of magnitude less costly and disruptive, like the “Medicare for America” plan he currently supports. There will be fights about health care during this debate, and O’Rourke should study the film from that first event, and wade in accordingly.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Senator Booker is mired at the top of the basement steps, and unfortunately has no clear path upward at this time. He connects very well on the issue of gun violence, and while he’s in as good a position as anyone else to attack the three frontrunners, he hasn’t shown a sufficient aptitude for it thus far to make him stand out in this field.

Booker should stay on-brand as the high-road guy that people may or may not be looking for this year, and wait for an opening down the road. He would also be an attractive running mate. Although he doesn’t deliver much geographically, Booker has an upbeat Obama vibe that would pair well with Biden.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar

Senator Klobuchar’s campaign arc has been a particular disappointment to me, as was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s. Their toughness and solid center-left positions should have made them greater contenders, but it hasn’t worked out that way — at least partially due to the sexist environment that makes little room for women candidates.

Klobuchar is mired in a polling rut that makes her a better VP candidate than likely nominee, something she not-too-subtly hints at when she talks about her support in the Midwest. But she’s still in the race, and could make some inroads by centering abortion rights — which has taken a backseat in this campaign — and sharpening Midwest-centric attacks on Trump over things like trade. Her popularity peaked around the time of her Fox News town hall, an indication that Klobuchar’s appeal is pretty squarely in the middle.

Klobuchar has shown she can throw a devastating punch, so you may see her take some swings at the top three if the opportunity presents itself. Biden and Sanders are vulnerable on abortion rights, but any other attacks would be from the right, and it’s tough to figure who would be won over by that.

Former Obama HUD Secretary Julián Castro

Secretary Castro also finds himself in the Veepstakes Polling Zone, and he’s an extraordinarily attractive candidate in that regard — geographically, demographically, and Obamagraphically.

But it’s early yet, and none of the candidates should resign themselves to the bottom of the ticket. Castro turned in an impressive performance at June’s debate, where he absolutely demolished fellow Texan O’Rourke, and scored again in the July session against Biden, both times on the issue of immigration.

He has also spoken out powerfully about the El Paso mass shooting, and Donald Trump’s role in it. And Castro has demonstrated that he will take any opening you give him, no matter who you are. He will play to win Thursday night.

But there are more important things than polling points. Lower-tier candidates like Castro — and Booker and Beto and Klobuchar — will also be able to communicate their values and priorities to a massive audience, and paint a very different picture of the Democratic Party than Americans will get from Trump or Fox News.

Kamala Harris has been my favorite candidate from the beginning, and she remains at the top due to my preference for a candidate who can shred Trump like a pork shoulder. That means a lot to me. But she’s slipped into closer competition for my vote due to her less-than-surefooted approach to certain issues and policies.

Biden has crept up my ranking because of how well he polls with the coalition we’ll need to beat Trump. I’d like to see him edge left on policy, especially health care. Many of my other favorites are either down (home state Senator Booker, tough cookie Klobuchar) or out (Gillibrand).

But Warren has risen in my personal rankings due to the sheer force of her political gifts. I think we all want a nominee who can bulldoze Trump, and the ones to watch tonight are Warren and Kamala Harris.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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