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Trump Tries To Steal Spotlight From Democratic Presidential Contenders


OK, we're talking about this debate, which could be a chance for Democrats to show unity against President Trump. But Democrats also face a related challenge - how to reclaim the narrative from President Trump. He has dictated the headlines with racist tweets aimed at four congressional Democrats followed by his criticism of the city of Baltimore.

Let's talk strategy here with Matt Bennett. He's an executive vice president at the center-left think tank Third Way. He previously worked on former President Bill Clinton's campaign among other campaigns, and he joins us now from Portland, Maine. Good morning.

MATT BENNETT: Good morning.

GREENE: So it has seemed so far like many of these Democratic candidates have tried to push things towards issues like health care, immigration, the economy, but then President Trump provokes with racist tweets like we have seen that don't just demand some kind of response, but they really monopolize the headlines. So in this climate, what can Democratic candidates do over these next two days?

BENNETT: Yeah, there's no question that Donald Trump is the greatest distractor in - probably in human history. And it is very difficult. And we saw this in 2016 when Hillary Clinton tried to break through with economic plans and other ideas. It's just very difficult to get any oxygen when Donald Trump is using it all with his kind of distraction mechanisms, mostly on Twitter.

But what Democrats have got to do is keep their head down and keep their eyes focused on the horizon. They've got to just make sure that they are offering and articulating a narrative and a set of ideas to people that will resonate and will offer them hope in a moment when a lot of people are really struggling.

GREENE: Is that what voters want? I mean, do the polls tell you anything when you look at them? Do primary voters - are they craving substance, or do they also want their candidates to take on the president in moments like this?

BENNETT: Well, it's very interesting. Democrats right now have both a game plan and a playbook that was offered by both 2016 and 2018. The game plan is you've got a win in the upper Midwest - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. So it's voters there that Democrats ought to be the most focused on.

The playbook was offered in 2018 when we won the governor's races in all three of those states, and we, of course, flipped the House. We won a net total of 40 seats in lots of districts that look like places in those three states. And the way we did that was offering people things that were concrete that answered their kind of kitchen-table concerns about health care costs and about economic opportunity. That is what we've got to do going forward.

GREENE: I mean, former Chicago mayor, Democratic Party leader Rahm Emanuel wrote an open letter to the candidates saying they have to unite all primary voters and that others in the past like Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton, were able to do that. But is that really the goal of all the candidates here? I mean, how do you advise a candidate who, you know, wants to both unite but also has to set him or herself apart in a really crowded field?

BENNETT: That's a really hard job with 24 candidates. It's hard with two candidates. We saw this in 2008 when really it was Obama versus Clinton. And the differences between them were very narrow, so offering distinctions between you and the other person is real tough. And that is one of the things that these candidates are going to struggle with.

They'll do it some with policy and then a lot with personality. We saw after the first round of debates that some of the lesser-known candidates got a lot of attention because of moments that they had in kind of challenging one another on stage. We'll probably see some of that tonight and tomorrow.

But the imperative, I think, for people like me who are not picking a horse but are keeping our eye on whoever the nominee is being able to beat Trump, the imperative for all of them is to focus on persuading people that may have voted for Trump last time to switch. There has been some data that shows that 89% of the vote margin in the 2018 races I talked about earlier came from people who switched from voting for Trump to voting for the Democrat. We have got to really focus on those people.

GREENE: What is one specific piece of advice you'd give to a candidate who is coming into this thinking to themselves, I've got to hang on here, I've got to be different, I've got to distinguish myself, I'm only going to have maybe one or two chances with the camera, you know, focused on me, but I also have to unite the entire party? How do you do all that with, like, very limited time?

BENNETT: That's a pretty tall order. But I think the number one thing that people are wondering from a kind of policy perspective is about health care cost. Ninety percent of Americans now have health care coverage. And we certainly need to cover the other 10%. But voters already know that's kind of priced in. The Democrats want to get to universal coverage.

What they don't know is what do we think about how difficult it is to pay the bills - the deductibles and the premiums and the co-pays and the surprise bills? Focusing on health care costs will signal to voters that we or that candidate understands their life in a kind of fundamental way. And it hasn't been a principal focus so far.

GREENE: Matt Bennett is executive vice president at the think tank Third Way, also a veteran of working on campaigns in the past. Matt, thanks for your time.

BENNETT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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