Bennet, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, and Hickenlooper, the state’s former governor, are here with 18 other candidates at the first Democratic presidential primary debate, vying for the party’s nomination to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
Bennet and Hickenlooper will go up against some of the highest-polling candidates on the second night of the debate, with former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg all randomly selected to share the stage. It will be televised at 7 p.m. MDT on NBC stations.
“Hickenlooper’s and Bennet’s challenge, to restate the obvious, will be to stand out in a crowded field,” Colorado Democratic strategist Laura Chapin said in an email. “Both have good stories to tell — Hick on Colorado’s success with contraception access, Bennet on health care. The question is whether they will have the time to do so.”
Each candidate will have one minute to answer each question directed at them. If there is a follow-up, they will get 30 seconds. Each candidate also will have 45 seconds for a closing statement. Liberal estimates give each candidate about eight minutes of air time.
Before the debates started, Hickenlooper said his aim is to emphasize his record on health care, the economy and women’s reproductive health.
“I’m really focused on really trying to be myself and not create a bunch of smooth answers or have something go viral,” he said. “I’m the one person who has done what everyone is talking about doing.”
Hickenlooper also downplayed the possibility that he would direct attacks at Sanders. They have mixed it up on the campaign trail and social media over Sanders’ democratic socialist agenda, which includes free college and government-run health care.
“I have tremendous respect for Sen. Sanders. And I think he has helped bring clarity to these issues that no one had before to a large extent,” Hickenlooper said. “I think he and I fundamentally disagree whether we need these large government expansions to move the country in the right direction.”
Bennet, in an interview with The Denver Post on Wednesday night, said he plans to focus on economic inequality and fixing the American political system.
“When you look at a state like Colorado, we have one of the most dynamic economies on the planet,” he said. “But most of the people I meet can’t afford housing, they can’t afford health care, they can’t afford higher education, they can’t afford early childhood education. That means they can’t afford a middle-class life.”
The two days of debates define a new phase of the marathon primary that started New Year’s Eve and still has 221 days to go before the first votes are taken at the Iowa caucuses. The debates are the first chance for most of the candidates to introduce themselves to voters who aren’t political junkies or don’t live in early primary states.
A recent poll for The Associated Press found that most Americans haven’t yet started to pay attention to the primary, something that may begin to change with this week’s debates.
In 2016, some 24 million viewers tuned in for the first Republican primary debate, which also featured 10 candidates. And more than 15 million people tuned in for the first Democratic debate four years ago.
Outside the Knight Concert Hall in Miami, where the first 2020 debate is taking place, Democratic voters were having their own discourse on how to best approach selecting their nominee.
Imran Siddiqui, a Florida lawyer and political consultant, said he is supporting Biden because he believes the former vice president is most likely to beat Trump.
“I don’t think any other candidate can win the voters we need,” Siddiqui said. “I need a candidate who will speak to those lower-educated, rural, poor, white voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan. … I’ve compromised on policy; at this point, I just want to win.”
But his friend Adriana Gonzalez said she is more interested in someone who represents her. She is undecided but has her eyes on Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
“Right now, I don’t have to compromise. Right now, I can go for the very best person I can get,” she said. “I feel like as a woman, an immigrant, a mom, a business owner, I have a lot of different needs. … And right now, I don’t have to sacrifice.”
Multiple news reports suggest Biden, who has the highest name recognition and poll numbers of any candidate, is preparing to take shots from his rivals on the stage. Sanders’ campaign, for instance, is prepared to draw a clear distinction between the Vermont senator, Biden and other candidates on the stage.
“I think for us, Thursday is about laying out a record, a long, consistent progressive record,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Sanders, pointing to Sanders’ opposition to the Iraq War and corporate bailouts after the Great Recession. “We’re going to make sure that voters know the record and that Bernie will bring big change to the country.”
However, other campaigns downplayed the idea that their candidates would attack Biden.
Harris, for example, is polling much higher than Bennet or Hickenlooper — each Coloradan being at or below 1 percent in most polls — but she too, will be using the debate stage as an opportunity to introduce herself, her representatives told The Denver Post.