‘Do or die:’ The pressure is on struggling 2020 Democrats to break through at Detroit debates

Cory Booker is telegraphing a clash with Joe Biden on criminal justice reform. Beto O’Rourke is eyeing a contrast with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Medicare for All. And Tulsi Gabbard is teeing up a fight with Kamala Harris over what it takes to be commander in chief.

With the leading candidates increasingly separating themselves from the rest of 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, this week’s second set of debates are shaping up to be most crucial for the bottom half of the pack who are dwelling in single digits and struggling to raise money.

It’s those campaigns that are preparing to take a more aggressive posture in Detroit as they fight for survival ahead of a traditionally slow summer fundraising period and stiffer requirements to qualify for the next debates in the fall.

“It’s definitely close to do or die for a lot of them in a way that’s different than the first one,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. “This, in a lot of ways, may be the most important debate of the cycle. It’s much more important than that first one. People are going to be out of this thing if they don’t do something.”

As 20 candidates prepare to take to the national stage over two consecutive nights, the greatest pressure weighs on the middling crop in desperate need of a breakout moment to propel their campaigns through the August doldrums.

The next debates aren’t until September, when polling and donor requirements for entry will tighten. Seven candidates have indicated they’ve already crossed the necessary thresholds, with at least two others claiming they are close to doing so.

Meanwhile, other campaigns are already feeling a financial squeeze: 10 of the candidates who will appear on stage this week already spent more money than they raised from the beginning of April through the end of June.

Failure to break through now may mean risking being locked out in September, amounting to a death knell for any candidate.

“There’s nothing between now and September,” Trippi said. “It’s August. Even the most activist voters may tune out a bit on vacation. It’s not like there’s some other major event you can score in.”

After the first pair of debates in Miami, Harris saw a brief surge in the polls and fundraising after taking on Biden on the issue of federal busing. And Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, earned a burst of positive media accolades and renewed interest after picking a fight with O’Rourke on immigration.

For this week’s showdowns, lower-tier candidates are searching for an issue to lean into or a ready-made one-liner to deftly deploy.

Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who is averaging around 1 percent in national polling, is kicking around lines like, “A lot of people have plans. But I have deadlines” and “I’m not going to overpromise,” according to an aide. It’s an effort to showcase her Midwestern pragmatism, as she stands alongside Sanders and Warren Tuesday night.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who will be participating in his first presidential debate, has devoted 30 hours to formal preparation, with his small team creating simulations and coaching him on ways to drive a point, according to his advisers.

One issue they think is squarely in Bullock’s wheelhouse is the enormous amount of time progressives have devoted to talking about wiping out the debt of college graduates, even though roughly 70 percent of Americans lack a college degree.

“You’ve got to demonstrate an ability to scrap it up a little bit and show you’re tough,” said a Bullock aide, while also acknowledging that an aggressive posture comes more naturally to certain candidates. “I’ve heard him say negative things about people less than five times,” the aide added.

O’Rourke’s team is looking for opportunities to transfer what they consider to be his “natural connectivity” with voters to the debate stage. His advisers said the candidate is itching for an opportunity to seize on health care and immigration distinctions, where he is looking to plant himself on more moderate ground.

One O’Rourke adviser believes his emotion-driven rhetoric could prove compelling when juxtaposed against Pete Buttigieg, another fresh-faced candidate who has swiped some of O’Rourke’s allure with his cerebral demeanor.

Raising his own stakes, O’Rourke told NBC’s Seth Myers recently that his task “is to define this as a moment of truth.”

Some candidates have been happy to show their hand in recent weeks, in an attempt to force moderators to direct questions toward them on their areas of choice. On the issue of mass incarceration, Booker did this by dubbing Biden “the proud architect of a failed system.” Gabbard, speaking on local sports radio, torched Harris as lacking “the temperament that is necessary for a commander in chief.”

“Folks need to find what are they going to be known for, what is their brand? Especially for the folks in the middle of the pack,” said Amanda Renteria, the former political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “It’s not just about a long-term drum beat. Are you also considering the topic of the moment and how do you lean into that?”

Given the high stakes, there’s the risk the two nights could devolve into a messy food fight.

An O’Rourke aide cautioned against pressing the panic button in July and overcompensating due to outside pressure to make an immediate move.

“It’s a long hot summer,” he said.

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David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to