Democratic Candidates Take Stage in Miami at First Primary Debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida on June 26, 2019. (Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic voters are getting their first chance to take the measure of 10 of the contenders vying to unseat President Donald Trump as they face off on Wednesday night in the first of two debates in Miami.

Against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis at the border, fears of an escalating conflict with Iran and the climate crisis, all eyes are on Elizabeth Warren — the Massachusetts senator who has been steadily rising in the polls on the strength of her detailed policy agenda as she looks like increasingly formidable challenger to both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have led in the polls for months and will debate on Thursday.

In this crowded field of candidates, and with so many Democratic voters keenly focused on finding the strongest contender up against Trump — and hoping the debates will give them that answer — Warren is aiming to use her performance to sustain her momentum while all the other candidates are under pressure to create memorable moments that will define them in voters’ minds and catapult them into the top tier.

RELATED: Your guide to the first Democratic debate

The lineup, determined through a drawing by NBC once candidates met the Democratic National Committee criteria, placed the Massachusetts senator on stage in this first round with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and six other candidates who have barely registered in the polls: former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee.

Without question, the most pressing topic looming over the debate is immigration, an issue that Trump has used to great effect to stir the passions of his supporters.

The debate took on a new dimension of urgency this week after the publication of a searing photograph of a father and daughter seeking asylum from El Salvador who were found face down on the banks of the Rio Grande after drowning in the swift currents as they attempted to cross from Mexico into the US.

Several of the candidates have already visited or intend to visit the Homestead Detention Center to draw attention to the conditions that migrants are facing when they come to the US illegally, which include reports of children being denied basic sanitary supplies like toothpaste, tissues and soap. Other reports, including ones from CNN, indicate children are being forced to sleep on bare floors as older children are asked to take care of younger charges.

The news of those indignities and the public health risks gave Democrats an opening for impassioned critiques of the Trump administration during the debate.

Earlier in the day during her visit to Homestead Detention Center, Klobuchar criticized Trump’s handling of the situation and “chaos in this immigration policy, starting with the people who are heading up these agencies, but then going into the policies.”

“Sadly, you have situations like that dad and his daughter — that incredibly disturbing photo. That sad, heartbreaking photo of a father and his daughter, when he’s just trying to seek a better life, trying to seek asylum,” she said.

During her own visit to Homestead earlier Wednesday, Warren accused the Trump administration of “following a policy of inflicting maximum pain on families that flee here trying to build a better life.”

“He’s doing it for the worst of political reasons,” Warren said. “That is not who we want to be as a people. We need to fight back against this.”

While speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump opened the door to ample debate by blaming the Democrats for not doing more to change immigration policies.

“I hate it,” Trump said of the photograph. “The asylum policy of the Democrats is responsible because they will not change the policy.”

Climate change is also set to be a major topic in Wednesday’s debate. Inslee has made the topic the central issue of his campaign and the host city, Miami, is one of the major cities that is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Wednesday’s debate will be followed by another showdown on Thursday night. In that debate, Biden, Sanders and two other strong contenders — California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — will take the stage for their matchup.

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