20 Democratic candidates to face off in 1st primary debates at Arsht Center

MIAMI (WSVN) - Twenty Democratic presidential candidates are set to square off over two nights in Miami in the first two debates of the primary season.

The 2020 general elections are still 17 months away, but South Florida will be ground zero for Democrats over the next few days. Candidates have started to campaign in one of the most competitive states in the country.

With so many candidates planning to take the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the first primary debate has been split into two nights, 10 on Wednesday and 10 on Thursday.

WSVN political expert Brian Fonseca of Florida International University said the candidates will strive to stand out while avoiding potential pitfalls.

“They want to distinguish themselves within the camp, but they have to be careful of making it a mud brawl and really damaging potential contenders for the presidency,” he said.

Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., held a town hall at FIU’s Ocean Bank Convocation Center in West Miami-Dade to discuss her plan to boost election security.

“First of all, we need to make it convenient to vote, right? Yeah. How about a national holiday when we vote? I’m for that,” she said. “The second thing we need to do is, we need to make our votes as secure as Fort Knox. You vote, it gets counted. That’s what we need to do.”

On Wednesday morning, Warren visited a detention center in Homestead before gearing up for her big debate night.

Another candidate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, stopped in the Florida Everglades on Monday to discuss climate change.

“We need a clean fuel standard,” he said.

He continued that conversation during a visit to Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to fight this climate crisis and stop it at its source,” he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, fielded questions from teachers at a town hall focused on education that was held at North Miami Middle School, Tuesday afternoon.

“To talk about the future of this country with the people who will decide it together,” he said.

Fonseca said you only need to look a the Republican field in the last election to see that today’s Democratic front-runner may not be the last one standing at the end of the primaries.

“Right now, we’re still very early. We’re well ahead of the national election,” he said. “In fact, this time in 2015, Rudy Giuliani was the lead candidate for the Republican Party, and we know how that ended.”

That first Republican debate had 20 million viewers. Fonseca said similar numbers could be a huge boost to lesser-known Democrats.

The White House is also trying to grab South Florida’s attention ahead of the debates, sending Vice President Mike Pence to visit the area. He spent Tuesday afternoon touring the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade.

Pence also made a campaign stop to meet with the Latinos for Trump coalition.

“President Trump has been fighting for the values that are really synonymous with Hispanic and Latino Americans,” he said. “Hard work, faith, family, freedom, educational choice and the American dream.”

It’s no surprise all eyes are already on Florida, from Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign kickoff in Orlando to the first primary debates in Miami.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also keeping a close eye. He said no one should take the Sunshine State for granted.

“You have a chance to win regardless of party, and I think that will be no different this time. I think it’ll be competitive,” he said.

There are currently 25 Democratic candidates who have announced a presidential run. Organizers selected the 20 who will take part in this week’s debates based on each contender’s ability to reach a threshold with poll numbers and number of donations received.

For these candidates, the first big step will be trying to stand out in a crowded field, a field that will soon start to become a little smaller.

Democratic supporters are showing up to learn more about the candidates.

“I have not studied all of the candidates. Not enough hours in the day for that,” said Elvis Cruz, a Democratic voter from Miami. “This is all part of the process. We have an embarrassment of riches on the Democratic side. A lot of terrific candidates. The American public will hear them, take their measure as people.”

“I know a lot of these candidates. I’ve heard some things about others, but as a voter in the great State of Florida, I’m interested in what they all have to say,” added Maribeth Healey, a Democratic voter from Orlando, “totally undecided because there’s 20 of them. I think there are a couple where I’m like, ‘Yeah, no, not them,’ but no one that I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, them.'”

Several voters are carrying signs outside the center to bring light to several topics of concern.

“I know in the debate they’re not going to talk much about the climate crisis that’s currently going on,” said Samantha Gazda, a climate change activist, “but it’s important that we get people in front of Arsht Center to know what’s going on and why we haven’t been addressing it so much.”

Voters in favor of Trump are also showing up to make sure their voices are heard.

“I just want to garner a little support for the president, No. 45. [I] think the economy is doing great,” said Blake Perlman.

“In this country, as long as you obey the laws, you enforce laws, you obey our constitution and do the right thing, then that’s what matters, and that’s what Trump is doing,” added Chaunce O’Connor, “and I’m hoping that more people will see that.”

The debates will bring major road closures to Miami. Biscayne Boulevard will be shut down in both directions between Northeast 13th and 14th streets, between 4 p.m. and 1 a.m., on both nights.

Northbound traffic will be diverted at Northeast 11th Street, From there, drivers will travel to Northeast First Avenue and continue north. Drivers have the option of getting back onto Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 15th Street.

Southbound traffic will be diverted at Northeast 15th Street, From there, drivers will travel west to Northeast Second Avenue or east to North Bayshore Drive. Drivers have the option of getting back onto Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 10th Street.

One westbound lane will also be closed between North Bayshore Drive and Biscayne Boulevard for setup and media staging purposes until Friday.

City of Miami Police officers will be on hand to assist with residents, pedestrians, demonstrators and traffic control.

All nearby expressway entrance and exit ramps will remain open.

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