Prize fight matchups for Demo­cratic de­bates

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Pitts­burgh Postgazett­e. Fol­low him on Twitter at Shrib­manpg.

Acam­paign with an early start and a mul­ti­tude of con­tes­tants heads into high gear this week with a com­pli­cated set of de­bates. 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 J. 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; the

20 can­di­dates on the stage -- and the lonely three who didn’t qual­ify, Rep.

Seth Moul­ton of

Mas­sachusetts, Gov.

Steve Bul­lock of

Montana and Mayor

Wayne Mes­sam of

Mi­ra­mar, Florida -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 (Thurs­day). 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 that 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.

•Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota v. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jer­sey (Wed­nes­day). These two or­di­nar­ily are on the same side in the Capi­tol, but Se­nate pol­i­tics and pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics are two dif­fer­ent sports -- much like Cana­dian foot­ball and the NFL, only more vi­o­lent. Both are tough com­peti­tors with strong prospects in Iowa, which is where the con­test be­tween the two will first play out next Fe­bru­ary. Booker al­ready has a for­mi­da­ble ground game for the state’s frosty cau­cus night, and Klobuchar is from a state that bor­ders Iowa so has the ca­pac­ity of im­port­ing scores of cam­paign vol­un­teers. Both will not emerge from the Iowa cau­cuses with cam­paigns in­tact. Their first skir­mish is this week.

•Mayor Pete But­tigieg of South Bend, In­di­ana, v. Sen. Michael Ben­net of Colorado (Thurs­day). 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.

•Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard of Hawaii v. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio (Wed­nes­day). Both por­tray them­selves as rebels, Gab­bard against con­ven­tional Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, Ryan against the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. The truth that dare not speak its name is that hardly any­one has heard of ei­ther one of them, and the sec­ondary truth is that they both can­not sur­vive the vi­cious fight for funds and at­ten­tion. If one of them can knock out the other, the survivor might win some breath­ing room.

•Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia v. Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York (Thurs­day). 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. This week’s de­bate pro­vides an early op­por­tu­nity.

•Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts v. the other nine (Wed­nes­day). In some ways,

War­ren is the big win­ner from the Demo­cratic lot­tery. She drew the least com­pet­i­tive de­bate field and, by happy co­in­ci­dence, prob­a­bly will be the most pol­ished de­bater on the stage, with an an­swer (usu­ally five or six bul­let points) and a pro­posal (white pa­pers for a cam­paign for the White House) that has never seen an equal in all of Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics.

•Mar­i­anne Wil­liamson v. Andrew Yang (Thurs­day). No one out­side their fam­i­lies and the staff mem­bers paid to plot their cam­paigns knows why ei­ther of these two un­knowns is run­ning for pres­i­dent, but Don­ald J. 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 books and has run a com­plex non­profit, while Yang is a suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur; his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign is by no means his first startup. Thurs­day is their re­al­ity-tv show­down.

•For­mer Rep. John De­laney of Mary­land v. Rep. Eric Swal­well of Cal­i­for­nia (in­ter-league play). 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.

•The re­main­der men. The three left be­hind won’t be in Mi­ami this week, but they also will not have to worry about be­ing bul­lied, in­ter­rupted or em­bar­rassed. Moul­ton was 14 when a for­mer se­na­tor from his state, Paul E. Tsongas, had about the same level of sup­port at this point in the 1992 Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion fight. A can­cer survivor, Tsongas de­feated Gov. Bill Clin­ton of Arkansas in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary. All is not lost for these three left-outs, though lit­tle likely will be won.

•••

DAVID SHRIB­MAN NA­TIONAL PER­SPEC­TIVE

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