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The 6 angles of attack that tonight’s Democratic debaters could exploit

The first night of the Democratic debates Wednesday offers the second round candidates a chance to form their plans of attack. | Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

The peculiarity of consecutive debates offers a big advantage for 10 members of the swollen 2020 Democratic field — a bit like a class of students, half of whom are taking the test cold, and half of whom know the subjects in advance.

No matter how well NBC moderators do at freshening their questions, the Wednesday debate illuminated strategic opportunities that Thursday debaters are free to exploit — as well as potential threats for which the Thursday candidates can quickly prepare in ways that Wednesday candidates did not. That’s not entirely fair, but neither are many aspects of presidential campaigns.

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Here are a half-dozen Day Two angles of attack in the light of Day One.

Defend Obamacare

Elizabeth Warren’s position had been slightly murky, but she de-murked it on Wednesday: She agrees with Bernie Sanders that private health insurance should be banned under a new plan of “Medicare for All.” So far, candidates have not underlined the obvious implication. Warren and Sanders disagree with Donald Trump in detail but agree with him on the central point: They want to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. Given how much unease there is within the party about how banning private health insurance would play in a general election (as well as whether it’s a good idea on the merits), this creates an opening for former vice president Joe Biden. He can remind people that passage of the Affordable Care Act was, as he famously said at the time, “a big f***ing deal.”

Be a happy warrior

Wednesday’s candidates clearly conveyed the impression of people who take the issues seriously — and also themselves. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar seemed pleased by what sounded like a prepped line about “all foam and no beer,” and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee briefly joshed with the NBC moderators about speaking time. But over two hours there were scant flashes of genuine wit, or evidence that anyone was having any fun up there.

It’s not an entirely frivolous matter. Trump is nothing if not a theatrical presence, and Democrats want a candidate whose personality is big enough to own the general election stage with him while projecting a confident and engaging personal style.

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One adage is that the presidency is usually won by the person most voters would rather have a beer with. Based on Wednesday’s performance, many voters might settle for midday coffee with that crowd — a clear opening for Thursday’s candidates to show more life.

Defend the center without sounding defensive

You wouldn’t have guessed it Wednesday night, but polls indicate that many Democratic voters, just like many candidates on the stage both nights, are uneasy with aggressive moves to the left on health care, decriminalizing illegal border crossings, or indiscriminately excoriating the private sector. But candidates have found it hard to convey nuance and passion at the same time.

At one end is the danger of looking like milquetoast before liberal activists. At the other end is the danger of saying something one doesn’t actually believe, or which will be hard to defend in a general election.

Illustrating the challenge, Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke sounded a bit tinny and tentative, as though they wanted to convey emotional agreement with liberal activists and disagreement on details. The problem is some of these supposed details are central policy questions.

This leaves an opening for several candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and California Sen. Kamala Harris to articulate with more crispness and confidence their evidently more moderate positions. The last two Democratic presidents, Obama and Bill Clinton, both managed to unite disparate wings of the party without projecting weakness or split-the-difference appeasement.

Identity politics

Obama won the closely contested 2008 Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton largely because he broke her early hold on African-American voters. Right now, frontrunner Biden still holds a lead with African-Americans, Hispanics, and women. Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and (to a lesser extent) Klobuchar all scored points Wednesday night by tying their policy views to their personal biographies. This dynamic is a clear threat to Biden, who so far has relied on prominent black and female establishment figures to help him weather various controversies that threatened his support among these constituencies. The Wednesday night example is also an opportunity for Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, among others, who similarly can take advantage of their non-white male status and harness this to a larger campaign vision.

Connect with the heartland

Tim Ryan of Ohio and Klobuchar of Minnesota tried plucking these strings on Wednesday, but not with especially original arguments. Otherwise the debate had a distinctly coastal feel — with robust advocacy for positions on abortion rights, gun control, and other stands that gain most support in urban states. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not an especially popular figure among liberal activists, said he was struck by a glaring “blind spot”: only glancing discussion of the opioid crisis, which he notes is taking more lives annually than guns and car accidents combined. The toll — with annual deaths in recent years that are just shy of the 12-year death total of the Vietnam War — is greatest in many rural areas and formerly Democratic states that Trump flipped in 2016. On politics and substance, fresh policies and language from the Thursday field would be a contrast from Wednesday’s missed opportunity.

Protecting flanks

The Beto O’Rourke on display Wednesday night seemed more like the way he was known as a three-term member of Congress — credible and well-spoken, but far from an electric presence— than the Texas Senate candidate who hoped the enthusiasm for his supposed talents sparked in 2018 could power a successful candidacy in 2020.

He may have been caught a bit flat-footed by the fact that he — rather than Biden, as front-runner, or Warren, as the candidate with the highest standing on Wednesday’s stage — was such a repeated target of criticism. Both New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Castro stood out on Wednesday by using O’Rourke as the foil.

The lesson, as my colleague David Siders notes, is that the dynamics of a large field create incentives to take aim at candidates beyond the front-runners. Individual candidates are trying to raise their profiles and survive as a field of two dozen soon narrows to a half-dozen or so top contenders. By this logic, Buttigieg might reasonably guess that some rivals like Gillibrand or John Hickenlooper might be eager Thursday to try to make him an O’Rourke-style pinata.

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