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Marco Rubio has some advice for the Democrats on the presidential debate stage next week

In 2016, it was the Republican debate stage that was crowded with senators

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College February 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College February 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As Democratic presidential hopefuls prepare to descend on his hometown of Miami for their first 2020 primary debate, Sen. Marco Rubio has a little candid advice.

“If one of your opponents attacks you, don’t repeat the same answer three times,” the Florida Republican quipped. “It doesn’t go well.”

Rubio was referring to one of the more unfortunate moments of his own 2016 White House run, when observers caught him repeating the same line verbatim time after time during a primary debate at St. Anselm College ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

Rubio found himself engaging regularly with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whether or not he wanted to do so.

That was not an accident. Mike Duhaime, a top consultant on Christie’s campaign, said the governor knew he could not get to the nomination without going through Rubio, so Christie spent time on the campaign trail criticizing Rubio, hoping debate moderators would notice and ask him about it.

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Duhaime, who also managed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential run in 2008, said the Democratic governors and senators who’ve qualified for Miami might only be used to facing off against one or two debate opponents at most. So they’d have to take a very different approach when debating nine other candidates onstage next week. That starts with determining the maximum time each will have to speak.

“Their last debate might have been an hour long, and they had almost 30 minutes. This one could be twice as long and they might get four minutes,” Duhaime said.

“If you only have a limited number of minutes to speak, you have to make an impression. Your No. 1 issue might be ‘Medicare for All,’ but you won’t get a question about it, so you have to figure out how to talk about what you want to talk about no matter what the question is,” he said.

Rubio said candidates and campaigns should be wary of the immediate post-debate reactions from cable news commentators.

“There’s an instant reaction. People aren’t waiting an hour and a half to react to it, and then obviously there will be follow-up on key moments. But one of the great things to take away is, if you look at 2016, the commentary class by and large, for example, felt that I either won or did as well as anybody else in every single debate with the exception of New Hampshire,” Rubio told CQ Roll Call.

“But the polling and, ultimately, the outcome of the election showed that Donald Trump did very well. So what the professional commentary class judged as good was not necessarily what reflected the voters’ views,” he added.

Rubio predicted next week’s debates, which will be televised by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, would prove to be big ratings draws.

“It used to be the sound bytes,” he said. “There will be real interest. The ratings will be equivalent to some sporting events and even larger, so people will watch them, and then obviously they’ll rewatch them.”

No ‘kiddie table’

The Democrats have split the 20 qualifying candidates across two nights, June 26 and 27, with both debates from Miami airing in prime time.  The effort was to avoid what came to be known as the “kiddie table” debates in 2016 — where the GOP had candidates who were polling lower appear together at less favorable viewing hours.

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose own 2016 presidential campaign never gained momentum, participated in both the varsity and junior varsity debates.

His advice to his Democratic counterparts was perhaps intended more for those with the odds stacked against them.

While Graham said the candidates should “do your best to stand out,” he added that they should also be aware of what memories will last beyond an individual debate night — or even an entire campaign.

“Be true to yourself. When it’s all said and done, you’ll remember that more than anything else,” he said.

The Democratic National Committee’s effort to avoid the “kiddie table” involved a blind draw, which led to neither of the nights being overly heavy on Senate participants.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the highest-polling participant in the first debate session, and she will be joined by two Senate colleagues: New Jersey’s Cory Booker and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar.

Former Vice President Joe Biden (himself a former senator from Delaware) heads up the second debate night, which features more of the current polling leaders. He’ll be joined onstage by three Democratic senators: California’s Kamala Harris, Colorado’s Michael Bennet and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will be participating as well on Night 2, with a much more crowded stage than when he ran in 2016 and almost exclusively had only one opponent, Hillary Clinton.

‘Have fun,’ but no ‘socialism’

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who like Graham, Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also made a 2016 GOP run for the White House before returning to life in the Senate, was less interested in offering performance advice to the Democrats.

“My first advice would be to recognize that most Americans don’t want socialism,” he said last week.

Cruz said the candidates should try to “have fun” with the experience, but he also offered that, ironically, the way for a candidate to distinguish herself or himself onstage might be to steer clear of focusing on Trump.

“I’d encourage the Democrats to have a positive vision to solve problems rather than simply base their entire agenda on hatred of President Trump,” he said.

Strategic attacks

Duhaime suggested that candidates and campaigns should make sure they know the rules set by NBC.

For instance, debate organizers may give candidates time to respond if they are specifically mentioned or attacked, and those rules can be used strategically to deny airtime to a competitor by mentioning someone who is seen as less of a threat.

“If Cory Booker wanted to keep Elizabeth Warren from getting a chance to speak, he could say, ‘This is an area where Amy Klobuchar and I disagree, or where Amy Klobuchar and I worked together,’ and then Klobuchar would get 30 or whatever seconds to respond,” effectively keeping Warren off the air, Duhaime said.

Rubio discouraged the 2020 field from having too many scripted responses.

“If you internalize the information, and you know the substance of … [what] you’re going to encounter and what the answers are, then that’s probably the best way to prepare,” he said.

“Part of it, honestly, is not just over-preparing, but not preparing the right way is a real danger.”

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