Experts: Dem candidates must balance Midwest, national issues in Detroit debates

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, spar during the Democratic primary debate in Miami on June 27. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is in the center.

When candidates take the stage in Detroit this week, they’ll be fending off more than quick digs from fellow hopefuls running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

They also will struggle for equal and quality speaking time with 10 candidates on the Fox Theatre stage each night, efforts to hit on themes that matter to everyday voters and the ever-present awareness that what’s said in Detroit will follow them through the rest of the primaries and perhaps the general election campaign.

“The best candidates have to have a strategy to attract enough of the Democratic base to win but not so much that you sell your chance in the general election,” said University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall.

Several candidates have already signaled they will be more aggressive Tuesday and Wednesday during the second round of debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke were caught flat-footed in the first round of Miami debates, where other candidates turned into wallflowers.

Biden himself promised at a Detroit fundraiser last week to be less “polite” as he batted back criticism of his civil rights record by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.

O’Rourke made small ripples when he spoke in Spanish on stage in June, but didn't effectively parry attacks on immigration policy from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. O’Rourke told reporters in Flint on Wednesday that he’s considering ways to up the ante in Detroit.

“I’m making sure that I’m really thinking through how on a very crowded stage with really talented candidates we can stand out,” he said.

And then there are the lower-tier candidates like Marianne Williamson, a spiritual author who used to run a Metro Detroit church who was ignored for the first 27 minutes of her first debate in Miami.  

The renewed determination from all tiers of candidates combined with a change in location and moderators could make for intriguing dynamics in Detroit, experts said. 

“I think that any candidates that’s polling near the top of the primary field are going to get some fire pulled on them,” Democratic consultant Adrian Hemond said. 

Balancing regional, national appeals

In Detroit, candidates should try to incorporate their views on “kitchen table issues” that hit closer to home for many Americans, such as education funding and accessibility, crumbling infrastructure and job creation or retention, said Hemond, partner and CEO at Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

The Detroit debates present a huge chance for candidates to show they can go toe-to-toe with Republican President Donald Trump on manufacturing jobs policies, he added.

“It’s no secret that the president’s road to victory ran through the upper Midwest,” Hemond said. “Democrats need to do better than they did in 2016 on that, and I think the debates in Detroit are a good opportunity for these candidates to show they can deliver a message that competes with the president.”

The sentiment was echoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won her 2018 campaign on an infrastructure pledge to “fix the damn roads.” Whitmer said she’d like to hear candidates' plans on skilled trades, mobility and the Great Lakes.

“This is the thing that unites us all, that transcends party line,” Whitmer said. “And voters really want to know, ‘Are these candidates going to address the fundamentals?’”

While CNN will control the questions, candidates should look to take liberties with their answers to make certain points, Kall said.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t pivot to those issues,” he said, while stressing the balance needed between regional and national overtures. “Yes, this is Detroit. Yes, this is the state of Michigan. But this is CNN and this is a national audience for a debate.”

Candidates must also find a balance between a primary platform that appeals to leftward fringes of the party and a general election with independents who may reject pandering to progressives.

“So far, the candidates have largely been campaigning for the activist base,” Hemond said. “That’s not reflective certainly of the general electorate, and not even for the primary electorate.

“What about all those other people who aren’t motivated by the situation on the southern border?”

Who's on deck

In Miami, O'Rourke was targeted in one debate while Biden was attacked the most in the other forum. The usually sharp and affable former vice president appeared to be surprised when Harris criticized his comments about getting along with segregationist lawmakers and his opposition in the 1970s to federally mandated busing programs.

“It was a total strategic blunder, a miscalculation,” Kall said. “He hadn’t debated in seven years. His debate against Paul Ryan was the last time he debated. It takes you some time to get back into the rhythm and routine.”

But come Wednesday, when Biden will be on stage again with Harris as well as Booker, he has told the media he’s preparing for the debate with key staff and plans to highlight differences between himself and other candidates. One issue is health care, where he is pushing to expand the Affordable Care Act and add a public insurance option but criticizing Medicare for All proposals.

“One thing I want to do is within a minute be able to state my position on really important (issues), because I want this to be about the future,” Biden said last Wednesday during a stop in Dearborn. “What plans do we have?”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts represent a second pairing who take similar stands on some issues and may use the Detroit stage to draw distinctions between Sanders' “heavy demagoguery” and Warren’s “effervescent qualities,” said Democratic political consultant Jen Eyer.

“Bernie absolutely has a lot of support here in the state and it’s going to be interesting to see if some of the former Bernie supporters, particularly the women, shift over to Warren,” said Eyer, a partner at the liberal Vanguard Public Affairs.

For candidates like Booker, Castro and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the Detroit debates present an opportunity to take a more aggressive role in the fray.

“People want a fighter,” Eyer said. “They want someone who will take the fight to Donald Trump.”

Firm talking points and barbed comebacks are only to be expected on the debate stage, but candidates should ensure they're also playing the long game, said civil rights icon and past Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson. 

"Democrats must keep one eye on the primary competition, but never lose sight on Trump," he told The Detroit News Monday. "The big game is next November.”

How to stand out

Battle may be constrained by rules imposed for the Detroit forums by CNN, which said candidates who repeatedly interrupt their colleagues will be docked time when it's their turn to answer a question.

It’s a calculated risk candidates will just have to take, said Eyer, who compared the dynamic to making a tactical foul during a basketball game.

“The fact that they’re getting docked is not going to stop them,” she said. “It will make them more strategic about it. They are an opportunity. They are part of debate prep. Those are what can make or break a candidate.”

The “hand-raise questions” by NBC in Miami were particularly risky for candidates seeking to strike a balance between the base’s pull and independents’ search for moderation, Kall said. The June debates asked candidates to raise their hands about government-provided health insurance for undocumented immigrants and the elimination of private health insurance through a Medicare for All policy.

CNN has prohibited such questions in the second debate.

Already, there are likely clips from Miami that will be used in Republican attack ads when the general election arrives, Kall said.

“It may be a situation where they win the battle but lose the war," he said about the Democratic candidates.

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Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.