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Democratic Presidential Contenders Get Ready for Their Close-Ups

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

This week marks the official kickoff of the prime-time Democratic presidential primary process. Two debates in Miami will include the top 20 contenders -- yes, top 20.


Ten contenders will participate in each of the two-hour debates, to be held Wednesday and Thursday night during prime time. The debates will be televised live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.

There are five in this series of debates: Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo and NBC, Savannah Guthrie of "Today," Lester Holt of "Nightly News," Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and Chuck Todd of "Meet the Press." They and their staffs will have worked hard to prepare questions to ask the candidates.

One can only hope that none of the questions will be leaked to any of the candidates' campaigns prior to the debate, giving them an unfair advantage. For those with short memories, let me remind you of how the Democrats shot themselves in the feet during the last go-around: Donna Brazile, who also served as interim DNC chairwoman, gave up her role as CNN commentator after a WikiLeaks dump revealed she had passed along information to the Clinton camp before a debate against Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont.

Brazile got the job of interim chairwoman after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., resigned in the wake of an email dump by WikiLeaks that showed that she attempted to ensure Hillary Clinton would beat Sanders and win the primary.

Clinton won the primary but lost in the general election to Donald Trump.

Trump could not have hoped for a better competitor: Clinton was entitled, tired, bitter and uninspiring. While she was running around complaining it was her time, Trump was holding rallies focused on Making American Great Again.


Let's hope -- for their sake -- that the Democrats decide to play by the rules this time around. And if not, perhaps they can figure out a way not to get caught.

The current candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will have prepped for the debates this week. Some will have reviewed binders of information on various topics, some will have practiced in staged debates, and others will have reviewed and practiced one-liners provided by their staff.

Two cycles ago, in 2011, my father, Newt Gingrich, was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. While he ultimately was defeated by former Gov. and now-Sen. Mitt Romney, my dad shined during debates. His deep knowledge of history (he earned a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University), his experience as speaker of the House and his accomplishments (including negotiating with then-President Bill Clinton the only balanced budget in my lifetime) provided him with an advantage. His debate prep: a Diet Coke.

However, once at the podium, he would jot down a few reminders -- not on issues or content but on delivery and style. The reminders came from three people. The first came from Abraham Lincoln, who was known for his oratory skills. "Lincoln slower," read the first line. The second was from my daughter, Maggie, and consisted of a drawing of a smiley face, a reminder to smile. The third was from my son, Robert: "shorter and clearer," a reminder not to ramble but to respond succinctly and in plain language.

This week, Gallup released a poll concluding that, "given a choice, 58% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prioritize a candidate's ability to beat Trump over their views on important issues." They just want to win. "Majorities of Democrats also say it is not important that their party's presidential nominee be a woman or a person who is a racial or ethnic minority." They don't care who wins the nomination as long as that person can beat Trump.


There is a gap between genders about the importance of issue agreement with the candidate and the candidate's ability to beat Trump: "Democratic men are more likely than Democratic women to prioritize agreement on issues, 44% to 36%."

This week, watch carefully as each of the candidates attempts to distinguish himself or herself from the rest of the crowded field, defining themselves not so much by their stance on any given issue but by their potential to defeat President Trump. Also, watch as Trump pulls up a ringside seat to fight night and goads the candidates to take extremist views that may win them support from their base but will hurt them in the general election.

Trump is betting that, in the end, the American people will make up their minds this fall based on the issues. So far, the Democrats are betting on personality. Pull up a seat.

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