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First Of Two Democratic Primary Debates Set To Kick Off In Miami

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – For many voters, it's the beginning of the 2020 campaign and it's happening in South Florida.

Tonight, the Democratic Party holds the first of a two-night debate, with 20 candidates taking part overall.

"A lot of voters don't know who all the candidates are, and it's gonna be a little bit of I want to get to know you, a little bit of getting name recognition, a little bit of making a sound bite," said Joseph Uscinski, University of Miami Associate Professor of Political Science.

Ten candidates will participate in tonight's event, and the other ten will go at it on Thursday.

The unusual set-up is the result of an unusually large field of hopefuls.


"There's still a lot of the electorate don't know who they are," said Charles Zelden, History and Political Science Professor at Nova Southeastern University. "With 10 people on the stage each night figure they're going to have at most two to three chances to make their points."

Professor Zelden thinks the candidates will likely have two goals for the debates.

"What we have is a requirement that they have both to introduce themselves and also make a splash," said Zelden. "Make sure they say something that people remember."

According to the rules of the debate, candidates will have just one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds to answer follow up questions.

Candidates will not make opening statements but they will be able to give a closing statement.

The biggest name on the debate stage Wednesday will be Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She'll attempt to dominate the field which includes former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

They all appear to trail former Vice-President Joe Biden who will debate on Thursday with California Senator Kamala Harris, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Zelden says the pressure is on the frontrunners to avoid mistakes.

"A small gaffe can cause big ripples for the Biden's, the Harriss, the Warren's and the Sanders' campaigns, he said.

Warren has been in South Florida over the past few days.

"I'm delighted that more people are talking about canceling student loans," said Warren.

Former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary Julian Castro has also spent time introducing himself to voters.

"I would strengthen Medicare for the people who are on it," said Castro.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee pitched his message of taking on climate change to South Florida voters.

"It is time to start to transition off of fossil fuels," said Inslee.

Which candidates appear on stage each night was chosen at random. Only one of tonight's participants has consistently polled in the top five.

"I think Elizabeth Warren will have an advantage because she's the only one of the so-called major candidates that is going to be on the night one panel," said Brad Bannon, Democratic pollster and strategist. "And so she has a chance to dominate."

Even as they work to stand apart from the crowd, one common theme is expected to emerge:

"They're going to talk a lot about Trump, and one thing they're going to do is try to make a case that they're the one who should go out there and battle Trump in the next year and a half," said Uscinski.

Four Democrats didn't qualify for the debates.

To qualify for the debate, candidates had to reach at least 1% in three separate polls, or receive donations from at least 65,000 different donors, with a minimum of 200 individual donors in no less than 20 states.

"No one is going to win the primary in this first debate," said Zelden. "But some people are going to lose any chance of winning the primary in this first debate."

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