Opinion: Great match-ups abound in second day of Democratic primary debate

David Shribman

A campaign with an early start and a multitude of contestants heads into high gear this week with a set of early debates involving a multitude of candidates. And while the contenders struggled mightily to qualify for these events, they will struggle even more to make their voices and their views clear in sessions with nine rivals also grasping and gasping for air time.

There’s nothing conventional about this Democratic campaign — indeed, there’s nothing conventional about their opponent, President Donald Trump — so it isn’t surprising that there will be nothing conventional about these debates. The fight cards were chosen by a lottery system so complex that it could only have been conjured up by Democrats, who over the decades have tended to debate rules better than they debate their opponents. The result: There is little method to the madness that begins Wednesday and continues Thursday.

Even so, the lineups present some intriguing possibilities for conflict, for the 20 candidates on the stage—and the lonely three who didn’t qualify, Rep. Seth Mouton of Massachusetts, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and Mayor Wayne Nessam of Miramar, Fla. — know that their own survival requires others to be eliminated, the sooner the better.

Here are some possibilities for illuminating exchanges:

• Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont v. former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. This is the prize fight of the week, two old guys (one grumpy, the other goofy), two men at the top of the Democratic polls, two political figures who have nothing in common except perhaps being members of the human race. Sanders has contempt for the brand of mainstream collegial politics Biden practices, and Biden is wary of the firebrand left-leaning impulses of his democratic-socialist opponent. The two overlapped in the Senate for two years. They were not boon companions.

• Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., v. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. Buttigieg is a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Bennet was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal. This is the intellectual heavyweight matchup, perhaps the greatest of all time. Neither is a conventional presidential candidate, but each has ardent supporters and a nimble mind. Bennet is far less well known and will hope to use the debate stage to highlight his cerebral but approachable profile. Buttigieg must use this opportunity to put some policy meat on his popularity bones

• Sen. Kamala Harris of California v. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Both had moderate records and moved leftward, both had impressive campaign starts and both have struggled for oxygen as the campaign has developed. It is unlikely that both will survive Iowa and the New Hampshire Primary eight days later, so each would like a knockout punch.

• Marianne Williamson v. Andrew Yang. No one outside their families and their staff members paid to plot their campaigns knows why either of these two unknowns are running for president, but Trump proved that conventional candidacies can be destroyed in a large-contender field. (There are 16 unhappy GOP witnesses to that notion, including former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.) In fairness, both are exceedingly accomplished, though not in politics. Williamson has written a baker’s dozen of books and has run a complex nonprofit, while Yang is a successful entrepreneur and his presidential campaign is by no means his first start-up. Thursday is their reality-TV showdown.

• Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland v. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. Delaney is on the Wednesday card, Swalwell is on Thursday’s. But they make for an intriguing pair. Delaney has been campaigning (without much notice) for two years and has visited all 99 of Iowa’s far-flung counties. Swalwell has been campaigning for less than three months but actually was born in Iowa. Both are earnest, serious, and probably doomed. But both have bet everything on the Iowa caucuses. They had better hope there is no television blackout in Iowa this week.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.