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Who made the cut — or got axed — for coveted Democratic convention speaking slots

Bernie Sanders and John Kasich will share a night in the spotlight, and both Clintons are slated to have prominent speaking roles at the all-virtual Democratic National Convention in less than two weeks, multiple people familiar with the plans told POLITICO.

Others who’ve been tapped for coveted speaking slots during an event that’s been shrunk down to eight prime-time hours over four nights are Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Jill Biden. And it goes without saying that the party’s two most popular figures, Barack and Michelle Obama, will be featured prominently.

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One source said Kasich — the former Republican governor of Ohio and a major critic of President Donald Trump — would appear on the same night as Sanders early in the week in a demonstration of unity. The duo would be designed to showcase a broad anti-Trump coalition that is backing Biden.

Democrats are also reaching out to well-known military veterans and Republicans known for their national security expertise for a portion of the convention devoted to foreign policy.

Convention organizers warned that planning is still in flux and details about themes, dates and speakers could still change, even though the event is only 10 days away.

Planning a Democratic convention without Democrats who are actually convening is the main challenge for the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign, and organizers are under intense pressure to produce a four-day television event that is engaging and entertaining but one that also conveys the gravity of the choice for voters in November.

“There won’t be the hoopla. There won’t be the cheering and yelling,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a friend of Biden. “But people are interested and I think they’ll listen. And because we have so many people who’ve been in the public eye this year and so many in the past, like the Obamas and the Clintons and people like that, we have a terrific lineup.”

One source said former Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio would appear on the same night as Sen. Bernie Sanders early in the week. | Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday via Getty Images

It is unclear whether Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term lawmaker beloved by progressives — and demonized by the MAGA-verse — will speak. Other prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will have roles. But given the time constraints — two hours of programming each night from August 17-20 — the Biden campaign is making some ruthless cuts. Some high-profile Democrats do not yet have confirmed roles.

At recent conventions, when there was more than six hours of daily programming, lower-level elected officials filled the afternoon schedule. But this year, securing a speaking spot is a unique status symbol, and convention planners say they have had to turn down some big names.

“We want to have as few elected officials as possible,” said one Biden adviser. “Every one of these politicians — they give them three minutes but then they take 15. We are trying to avoid that. There will be a lot of video and a lot of regular people.”

Because the coronavirus pandemic has pushed planning to the last minute — convention organizers announced only this week that Biden would give his keynote speech in Delaware instead of Milwaukee — some aspects of the event are still being negotiated.

The news that Warren and fellow vice presidential contender Harris have already been given speaking roles at the convention, according to multiple sources, might lead to speculation that they have been crossed off of Biden’s list of running mates. But some Democrats said it is not unusual to set aside spots for vice presidential finalists.

“Historically, we slotted everyone who was a VP contender into the program. Then you switch them out if they are picked,” said a person familiar with the lineup. “How deep you go is a question. There are 10 people on the Biden list. But if they are a serious contender, they would have a spot. And my understanding is that they have already been slotted.”

Harris spokesperson Sabrina Singh said, “I have nothing to add at the moment.”

There has been significant chatter in Democratic circles about whether the Clintons, who are both close to Biden, would have speaking roles. Some Democrats have grumbled that if Hillary Clinton earned a spot, then it’s hard to turn down other unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominees such as Al Gore and John Kerry, who is a close Biden friend.

Both Clintons are expected to deliver their remarks live from their home in Chappaqua, N.Y. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Others have worried about showcasing Bill Clinton, who has spoken at every Democratic convention since 1980, in the #MeToo era. But several sources confirmed that both Clintons will speak.

“I was curious how they were going to deploy the Clintons,” said David Brock, a Clinton ally who created a pro-Clinton super PAC in 2016. “Seems an all-hands-on-deck approach, which is good because they still have a strong fan base.”

Both Clintons are expected to deliver their remarks live from their home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where they have had a studio, similar to Biden’s modest basement setup, since April.

The Clintons will face the same unusual pandemic-related challenges as their fellow speakers. Is it safe to bring in tech teams to set up satellites and cameras? Will living rooms and home office studios look sufficiently august on TV? Perhaps, most important, how will speakers make up for the loss of a live crowd?

“You don’t have an audience to feed off,” said one Democrat involved in preparations. “You’re not going to stand at a podium in the middle of your living room. On the other hand, it’s not a fireside chat. You are trying to tell people we are in an existential crisis and need to get this guy out of office, and you can’t do that from your La-Z-Boy.”

Television networks are still unsure about coverage plans and concerned about how the speeches will look. Several people involved with planning either the convention or the news coverage pointed to the annual State of the Union as an instructive example. After the president delivers his address before Congress that features a roaring crowd and standing ovations, the opposition party typically serves up a politician standing stiffly behind a lectern or desk and delivering a teleprompter speech alone in a room with no audience feedback.

“A convention has always been both about the candidates and the event — balloons dropping, people cheering, debates on the floor,” said an executive at one of the big three networks. “All of that is going away.”

He added, “Watch the late-night shows to get a sense. Without an audience things feel different. … It’s why they invented laugh tracks for sitcoms and why comedians are funnier doing stand-up.”

The networks are under no obligation to carry the nightly two hours of programming from 9 to 11. “We will probably only cover one hour, 10 to 11,” said the executive. “We’ll take the main speech each night.”

Said another network official, “We are not just going to say, ‘Here’s the feed,’ and let it roll.”

Convention planners are trying to translate the main set pieces of a party convention for the quarantine era. The roll call of the states is being designed as an iconic virtual roll call that sweeps across the country but that is highly dependent on the absence of technological glitches.

But without the pyrotechnics, convention planners fear the networks will cut away. “Are we going to put on our network a Zoom call with 50 boxes?” asked the network executive.

Democrats said a handful of citizens, such as a grocery store worker or nurse on the front lines of the pandemic, might also speak at the event. A portion of the convention devoted to the climate crisis will feature young activists.

The question of Ocasio-Cortez’s role has set off a debate among Democrats. Progressive activists said she would help energize the base and bring young people behind Biden. They also noted she already served as the co-chair of Biden’s “unity” task force with Sanders focusing on climate change.

“It would be stupid not to give her” a slot, said Corbin Trent, a former top adviser to Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s one of the best speakers the Democratic Party’s got.”

But some moderate Democrats said privately that it would be harmful to the party if she got a prime-time speaking position at the same time Trump is trying to link Biden to her in an effort to paint him as an “empty vessel” for the progressive left.

Rendell said it wouldn’t be representative of the 2018 freshman class if Ocasio-Cortez got a prime-time speaking role, but moderate lawmakers who helped win back the House didn’t.

“I don’t think so,” he said when asked whether Ocasio-Cortez would get a slot. “I think Bernie and Warren will speak, and they’ll represent the progressive wing of the party very ably.” Referring to more moderate members of Ocasio-Cortez’s House class, he added, “If you picked AOC, why wouldn’t you pick Katie Porter or why wouldn’t you pick Madeleine Dean or Mary Gay Scanlon?”

Sanders is expected to speak on Monday, said two people familiar with the lineup. One Democrat said he is “going to have a big speaking role.”

“I’m confident he will get his due,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, Sanders’ 2020 campaign co-chair. “And I’m confident that the Biden campaign has treated both Sen. Sanders and his supporters with respect and given us a seat at the table.”


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