TROY, N.Y. — The ambush came seconds after Senator Kirsten Gillibrand began launching into a pitch for one of her core policy proposals: a system of publicly financing elections. As she began describing her idea, a man to her right interrupted.
“I’m sorry, I have to step in here,” said the man, who was going by the name of Andrew Yang, one of Ms. Gillibrand’s rivals.
Ms. Gillibrand rebuffed him, parried a skeptical moderator’s question and returned to her main argument: that a proposal like hers would help neuter special interests like the National Rifle Association.
“Let’s talk about the real cost to taxpayers: the fact that Washington is so corrupt,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “The fact that any big idea that we’re going to hear from this debate stage tonight — none of them can get done until you get the money out of politics.”
Mr. Yang was speechless — or, at least, a simulated version of him was.
For Ms. Gillibrand was not sparring with Mr. Yang and Lester Holt of NBC News on a stage in Miami; she was practicing for the upcoming primary debates with a group of 10 campaign aides in a converted auto dealership with a neon-colored mural of John Lennon on the wall. With Ms. Gillibrand squeezed between them in a row of podiums, two of her campaign consultants, Raghu Devaguptapu and Brandon Hall, rotated through a list of roles that included Mr. Yang, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president. (Mr. Devaguptapu, sporting a checked blazer, played Mr. Yang.)
Image Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign staff filled the roles of her opponents and the NBC moderators during the practice session. Credit Patrick Dodson for The New York Times [ Sign up for our politics newsletter , and we’ll send you a reminder about our live chat on debate night.]
For candidates like Ms. Gillibrand, the season of preliminary debates that begins this week is more than a high-stakes political test. The debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and another two at the end of July, may represent the first, best — and for some, the only — opportunity to stand out from an enormous throng of competitors and build national momentum in the Democratic primary.
If these debates are designed to let candidates showcase themselves to a national audience, for some they could end up serving less as a moment of introduction than as a farewell, as they separate the Democrats capable of exciting the imaginations of primary voters from those who lack that gift. More than half of the candidates debating this week risk being blocked from debates starting in September unless they can significantly lift their polling and fund-raising numbers before then.
Ms. Gillibrand was far from alone in her intensive preparations. Across the country, in spare hotel conference rooms and bustling campaign offices, many of the 20 Democrats who will debate Wednesday and Thursday have spent long hours holding their own debate simulations and rapid-fire policy drills.
[The Democratic debate lineups are set. Here’s what to expect .]
In each debate, the candidates could have as little as six or seven minutes of speaking time to put all that practice to work.
The leading candidates are girding for criticism. Mr. Biden, who leads in the polls but spent last week under attack for his history of striking deals with segregationists , has been holding mock debates to practice as his advisers urge him to stay above the fray. Mr. Sanders, struggling to keep his second-place standing as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a fellow populist, rises quickly, has been reading written policy briefings prepared by advisers, but has resisted certain kinds of debate drills as his advisers discuss whether to aggressively harry Mr. Biden.
Image Ms. Gillibrand said she expected the sharpest friction to run between Senator Bernie Sanders and Joseph R. Biden Jr., with whom she will share the stage on Thursday. Credit Patrick Dodson for The New York Times And there are the skilled underdogs, determined to break out of the pack: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a fastidious moderate, said she has watched the crowded Republican primary debates of 2012 and 2016 to soak in the highly fluid format. Allies of Senator Cory Booker, who challenged Mr. Biden assertively last week on matters of race, said he has been holding extended study sessions, breaking up his preparations by doing push-ups on the floor and wedging one practice session into a car ride between Washington, D.C., and his home state, New Jersey.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said in an interview that he had been practicing mock debates with his former chief counsel, Nick Brown, playing a number of rival debaters. But Mr. Inslee said he was mainly focused on explaining his record as governor and his vision for addressing climate change as a national emergency.
“For a candidate like myself, who is essentially unknown, this is a great chance to make a first impression on the nation,” said Mr. Inslee, adding, “I think the dialogue will be much more between the candidates and the viewers, than between the candidates.”
For the best-known candidates — Mr. Biden, 76, and Mr. Sanders, 77 — a different challenge looms when they debate on Thursday. Universally known to Democratic voters, their task in the debates is less one of self-introduction than of self-defense — addressing criticism from younger and, for Mr. Biden, more liberal rivals, and perhaps from each other.
[ Which Democrats are leading the 2020 presidential race this week? ]
Three other Democrats who have gained varying degrees of traction — Ms. Warren; her Senate colleague, Kamala Harris of California; and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — view the debates as a chance to extend or accelerate their momentum. Ms. Warren, by far the most prominent candidate in the Wednesday debate, is looking to deliver a forceful version of the policy-heavy calls for political reform she has been trumpeting on the trail. Ms. Harris and Mr. Buttigieg, who are both in the Thursday debate, are also aiming to amplify their core themes while navigating the complicated dynamics of sharing a stage with Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders.
Ms. Gillibrand, who will be on stage with Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, said she did not expect to grapple much with those two men — on the contrary, she predicted Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders would clash mostly with each other. But Ms. Gillibrand made plain that she had studied her major opponents’ records.
Image Mr. Biden in Columbia, S.C., at the state’s Democratic Party convention on Saturday. He has been studying for the debates for weeks, according to people familiar with his preparations. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times “We have contrast with Biden, we have contrast with Bernie, we have contrast with — maybe a couple with Kamala,” Ms. Gillibrand said, ticking off rivals one by one. “We have contrast, certainly, with Bennet. I don’t know what Andrew Yang — what his platform is, so I don’t know if I contrast with him. And I don’t know much of Mayor Pete’s platform.”
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who is unaligned in the primary, said voters would be watching the debate through the lens of seeking a candidate who can beat President Trump. In that respect, it could be an especially important test of Mr. Biden, who has staked his candidacy on the perception that he is the most electable person in the race.
“Rank-and-file Democrats like Biden, but they also have questions about his age and whether he is in step with the times, and many will be watching for some telltale signs in this regard,” Mr. Garin said, adding of the rest of the field, “The debate is a chance for Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg to solidify their position in the top tier and build some additional momentum, and a chance for Booker in particular to move himself up into the top tier.”
Mr. Biden and his advisers are bracing for an especially strenuous outing. Having entered the race in April as the front-runner, Mr. Biden has campaigned so far at a cautious distance from his rivals and from the media. It may be difficult to sustain that regal pose in what will be his first debate since his one-on-one outing against Paul Ryan in the lone 2012 vice-presidential debate.
Mr. Biden has been studying for the debates for weeks, according to people familiar with his preparations. He has been reading through briefing books and engaging in rehearsal sessions, and his preparations are led by two of his closest advisers, Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, and Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff. Some of his closest political allies have urged him to do his best to avoid squabbling with other candidates, even if they come after him.
In Iowa earlier this month, Mr. Biden told reporters that he did not intend to go after other Democrats, and said he expected the overflowing debate stages to yield less than substantive repartee.
Image Mr. Sanders in Columbia, S.C., on Friday. Among the major presidential candidates, he is said to have been least interested in participating in intensive pre-debate drills. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times “It’s a little bit of an exaggeration to call it a debate,” Mr. Biden said. “There’s not really much time, so it’s like a lightning round.”
But the stakes for Mr. Biden have risen substantially, his allies acknowledge, following the uproar last week over his habit of telling stories about working with segregationists in the Senate, and an ensuing clash with Mr. Booker about Mr. Biden’s judgment on race.
Among the major candidates, Mr. Sanders is said to have been least interested in participating in intensive pre-debate drills, people briefed on his activities said. He has been reading up on his rivals’ policy positions, these people said, but he has little patience for mock debates.
There is a split within Mr. Sanders’s camp as to how aggressive he ought to be with Mr. Biden; while the senator has stark ideological differences with Mr. Biden and sees the former vice president as his most important opponent, Mr. Sanders is said to want to focus on his own message and engage Mr. Biden only if the situation arises organically.
On Sunday, Ms. Gillibrand and her advisers seemed to settle on something of a wait-and-see approach to her best-known opponents. She practiced an answer on health care that strongly implied she was a more politically daring advocate for single-payer medicine than Mr. Sanders: “It was something I actually ran on in 2006, and won in a two-to-one Republican district,” she said, answering a riff by Mr. Hall-as-Mr. Sanders.
And Ms. Gillibrand, a politically agile former corporate lawyer, seemed alert to opportunities to play off Mr. Biden, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
As her staff ran through a lightning round of questions, asking the debaters to raise their hands if they supported ideas like prosecuting drug manufacturers and abolishing the death penalty, Ms. Gillibrand noticed at one point that Mr. Hall-as-Mr. Biden was not raising his hand to oppose capital punishment.
“Biden, you suck!” she taunted her adviser, grinning widely before quickly turning serious again. “Sorry, I’m kidding. It was a joke!”
LINK ORIGINAL: nytimes.com