NOEL KING, HOST:
The first Democratic presidential debate begins in Miami tonight. Ten candidates will take the stage. The debate will air on NBC. And here's who's up.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tim Ryan, Elizabeth Warren.
KING: NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro is going to be watching carefully.
Good morning, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: All right. So Joe Biden is the front-runner in the early polls. And he is not onstage tonight, but are the other candidates going to be compelled to (laughter) talk about him?
MONTANARO: (Laughter). Well, I mean, he's been a big focus of the other candidates in the run-up to this debate. And, you know, the candidates are going to be hoping to - you know, were hoping to be onstage with him, but it might be a little awkward for some of the people who are onstage tonight to be talking about him without him onstage. So I'd expect that they talk more about their own policies, their visions for the country, and look for ways for themselves to stand out when a lot of the focus will be on tomorrow night for some people.
KING: Well, let's talk about potential standouts. I mean, there are some people, some candidates on the stage tonight, who are known as particularly good debaters. I'm thinking about Elizabeth Warren. I'm thinking about Cory Booker. What are you watching for with them?
MONTANARO: Well, Warren is somebody who's really surged lately, and she has an opportunity to really kind of command the stage. You know, in addition to, you know, the fact that she's put out all these policy proposals with all these detailed plans, she's gotten a lot of points for her hustle. You know, she's got this sort of selfie-for-everyone kind of plan.
KING: (Laughter) Yeah.
MONTANARO: More than 30,000 people have taken selfies with her. You're going to have Booker onstage. You'll have Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman. So - but she's the probably the strongest on policy and on substance. And, you know, whenever something will come back to her, you know, in what she wants to do or what the country needs to do, she's got it all kind of, you know, down to the dollar figure figuring out what exactly she wants to do. And one of the big things that we've noticed in polling is that people are saying that if they had a magic wand and they - Democratic voters - if they could pick someone, never mind if they could beat Trump, they are going - they would want someone like Warren. And that's a big opportunity for her to show that she can be presidential tonight.
KING: There's also going to be competition among the folks whose names are just not as well-known. You know, they're going to be looking to make a splash, to break out. Do you - as you've been surveying these candidates, is there anybody you're keeping an eye on who you think might get interesting tonight?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, I don't know about tonight necessarily, but I think about somebody like Pete Buttigieg, anyway, to figure out, you know, if he can sort of deal with what he's been dealing with back home as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and this police shooting where a white police officer shot a black man in South Bend. And he's had to deal with protests. You know, he's had kind of a charmed political campaign so far. And whether or not he can sort of bounce back and deal with some of that adversity, he's going to have an opportunity to speak to his broadest audience yet. And that's the same for a lot of the candidates. Especially in such a big field, they're going to be wanting to look to break out tonight and tomorrow.
KING: Domenico, you've talked about this race as kind of a contest right now between the pragmatists and the progressives. How do you see that playing out tonight?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, striking that balance is pretty tough. I mean, there's really a split in the party between the sort of super-progressive wing that's grown frustrated with the politics of comity and tired of what they see as, like, empty unity talk...
MONTANARO: ...Versus the pragmatists, you know, who do believe that the country doesn't need a massive - who believe that the country, you know, maybe doesn't need this, like I say, massive pendulum swing the complete other direction, but that the last election was won at the margins and what's needed is a, quote, "return to normalcy."
KING: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.
MONTANARO: Sure. We'll see if that plays out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.