EXCLUSIVE: “It’s Joe Biden’s to lose, Elizabeth Warren’s to win and everybody else is to try to get noticed,” a top Hollywood donor bluntly says of the two-night Democratic debate that kicks off tonight on NBC.
“Look, this isn’t Democrats Got Talent, but it kind of is,” the executive added of the field that features the former VP, the Massachusetts senator and 18 other Oval Office hopefuls taking the stage in two groups tonight and Thursday in Miami. “People are watching to see who stands out and who they will be writing checks to.”
Notes another longtime Tinseltown donor: “Warren has a great advantage being on the first night. She can turn this into her town hall and pressure Biden, Bernie and Buttigieg to have to respond to her on Thursday.”
A random draw in mid-June left Warren as the only top polling Dem on the first night with the former VPOTUS, the Vermont Senator, the Indiana Mayor and the Golden State’s junior Senator Kamala Harris squaring off on June 27.
Starting at 6 PM PT, Warren, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Cory Booker, failed Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and six other candidates will position themselves behind podiums in the Florida megacity for a salvo of live questions from NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow plus José Diaz-Balart. With topics like immigration, race, health care, abortion, mass incarceration Robert Mueller and the current POTUS on the menu, the debates are shown on the Comcast-owned net, MSNBC and Telemundo.
Despite all those hot buttons looking to be pushed, the format of the two-hour shindig won’t allow for much show and tell and almost demands a single contender grab the baton and run with it – which is Elizabeth Warren’s speciality, as recent poll surges and New Yorker and New York Times Magazine profiles detail.
Under the agreed upon rules, there will be no opening statements, and each candidate will have 60 seconds to answer questions, 30 seconds to follow up and closing remarks in the final half hour. If that doesn’t seem like a recipe for gridlock, add to the jambalaya the probability that Trump or his tea will take to social media (or a podium) during the event to pull focus from the Dems, as the former Celebrity Apprentice host loves to do.
Even though it is around 200 days until the first actual primary voting at the Iowa caucuses, there are those in the Hollywood ATM crowd who expect a culling out of this week’s debate-palooza.
“Beto and Mayor Pete peaked early,” a well-placed and deep-pocketed producer told Deadline of the media darling ex-congressman and the South Bend mayor, respectively. “There was an attraction to their newness, but what the base out here need to know is can you beat Trump and are you ready to be President on Day One? Under that criteria, Joe has the deepest support, and a lot more people waiting to step forward for him if he does well on Night 2.”
In a party that was appearing to be playing to primary voters on the left more and more in the past few months, establishment candidate Biden’s formal entry into the race in late April and Hollywood heavyweight fundraiser that scored $700,000 not long afterwards has seen the Hollywood equilibrium begin to find more a conventional footing of late. Additionally, Biden has almost been ignoring his Democratic rivals and centering his 30,000-feet campaign on Trump in anticipation of the 2020 general election.
Heading into a round of L.A. fundraisers hosted by the likes of Ryan Murphy and Ted Sarandos’ spouse and former U.S. Ambassador Nicole Avant, the shooting star of Mayor Pete was harshly brought down to Earth by his unsteady handling of a fatal police shooting this month in his hometown of South Bend. Buttigieg postponed his POTUS campaign, aggravated both the local cops and the African-American community in his response, and has seemingly lost most of his momentum with the 90210 residents who help fund the Democrats nationally.
Already replaced in many ways as the youthful outsider by Mayor Pete, O’Rourke looks to have come undone by one Vanity Fair cover too many that undermined an expected sense of gravitas for any potential nominee, in or out of central casting.
With all that, there is always the wild card of 2016 hopeful Bernie Sanders, who will be on the debate stage Thursday with the man who knocked him off the frontrunner perch. While Sanders has never been a strong presence on the cash circuit in Hollywood, he still seems to have a depth of admiration among many of the movers and shakers as an advocate, I hear.
“Bernie laid out the blueprint, now we need to see how his ideas can be translated into winning policies by the right candidate,” an insider said, lamenting the vulnerabilities Sanders could offer up to Trump in a general-election runoff.
“Debates don’t always matter that much at this point, but we all know how they made Trump a legit candidate,” that top Hollywood donor notes of the showdown that all of the town except for those at the Spider-Man: Far From Home premiere seem to be tuning to tonight. “With this big a pack, this is a TV Super Wednesday and Thursday, and that means winners and losers,” another politically motivated industry player laughs.
They added: “When it’s over, we won’t have 20 people running for the nomination, you can be sure of that.”