For the first time in the 2020 campaign, debating champ Elizabeth Warren has a chance to genuinely pull ahead

The Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at a campaign stop in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 16.

caption
The Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at a campaign stop in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 16.
source
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a chance to stand out in Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate, giving her a scenario that plays to her strengths.
  • Warren is considered the only top-flight candidate to appear Wednesday, with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden set to appear in Thursday night’s debate.
  • In some polls, she is level with or leading Sanders as the most popular Democratic candidate behind Biden.
  • A star debater, Warren has built her campaign around detailed policy proposals that may get a better airing in this setting.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Once seen as an outside bet, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign is building momentum that could deliver results at Wednesday night’s televised Democratic debate.

Her run for the White House is built around detailed policy proposals on issues like taxes, trade, debt, education, and renewable energy. “I have a plan for that” has been adopted as an unofficial campaign slogan.

Once seen as a somewhat distant academic, she’s surprised many with the passion and energy of her candidacy.

It’s a stark contrast to the insult-driven, social-media-based campaign of President Donald Trump – though a policy-driven movement has the disadvantage of catching rather less attention.

Ahead of Wednesday night’s first Democratic primary debate, to be broadcast from Miami on NBC starting at 9 p.m. ET, the Massachusetts senator and former law professor is gaining in the polls.

A straw poll by the progressive group MoveOn.org on Tuesday found her the first choice for 38% of the group’s members. Her chief rival for the vote of the party’s progressive wing, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, came second. He also trailed Warren in a June 14 Economist/YouGov poll of US adults and in a recent poll of Democrats in Nevada.

So crowded is the Democratic field that the debates are to be spread over two nights, with Warren the only leading challenger – based on early polls – scheduled to participate Wednesday. The lineup, which was the result of a largely random selection process by NBC, puts Warren in a good position.

She will share the stage with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sen. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.

A former star debater who won a college scholarship at age 16 on the back of her skill on the podium, Warren has a chance to further cut into the lead of her rivals and showcase her plans.

“I don’t think anyone else on that night has her level of skill and her level of experience in this format,” Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, told the Associated Press.

“I think she should look at this as an opportunity to really shine and come out of the first night as the one that is dominating the conversation.”

The second debate’s lineup includes Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who have led most polls so far, with Biden the overall frontrunner.

Taking the stage separately from her key challengers will deny Warren the opportunity to attack them directly, but it gives her an opportunity to bring her message to Americans without the distraction of a Sanders-Biden showdown.

But with O’Rourke in particular badly needing to turn around an ailing campaign, Warren could find herself on the end of attacks by her rivals, placing her on the defensive and depriving her of the chance to create the kind of viral moments that can massively boost a candidacy.

On balance, though, plenty of observers believe that Wednesday night is Warren’s moment.

In a preview of the debate, New York magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti wrote that Warren would succeed if she could “talk with specificity about the progressive policy plans she’s been unveiling to great fanfare, without needing to criticize any other candidate too sharply.”

“This tactic,” Debenedetti added, “has won her praise as a serious contender, and she’ll be eager to amplify that in front of her biggest national audience yet.”