Democratic Debates: Here's How to Tell Who's Winning | Opinion

Later tonight, the Democrats will kick the two consecutive nights of what promises to the first be many debate encounters among the 20 nomination candidates. Hats off, first, to the DNC for grouping the candidates randomly to insure equal participation by everyone. The RNC's "adults" and "kids table" debates in 2016 unfairly disadvantaged candidates who were not well-known and who had no chance to make their case before the general public.

With so many candidates, it will be difficult to keep score in any traditional sense. Fleeting impressions will be dominant. Given limited speaking time, the smarter candidates will be the ones who focus on themselves, their priorities, campaign tactics, and issue stands. Here are four yardsticks to measure the candidates' performances and how well they have accomplished their goals and advanced their candidacies.

1. It's all about ATTENTION. The speaking parts for each candidate will be maybe ten minutes, not a long time to make any lasting impression. As such, look for candidates to stress proposals with already made and tested "applause lines." One way for candidates on the bottom rung to gain some traction is to utter a clever or even outrageous comment that gets replayed multiple times after the debate ends. Think Donald Trump in 2016. Humor, attacks on opponents or lines that reinforce a candidate's authenticity will be in great demand. Such breakthrough comments could bring a trailing candidate badly needed notoriety and attention.

2. It's all about INTENSITY. Candidates are looking for first place votes. "Place" and "show" don't count in primaries. Candidates who want to move forward need to find motivated supporters who will work for, donate to, turn out and vote for their candidacy. That means breaking into a pool of voters that share common ideological, background or demographic characteristics. These voter "lanes" contain large number of supporters that share similar outlooks. The most important lanes in today's Democratic Party would include Progressives (the largest), party regulars (less ideological), minorities, women, and young people. A quick review of the candidates would find Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seeking the Progressive nomination, Joe Biden and several lesser candidates courting the regulars, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro with minorities, Harris, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand seeking female support, and Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg fighting for youth and alienated voters. Of course, the categories overlap and candidates can make multiple appeals but the successful candidate performances will focus on specific messages to important groups of Democratic voters.

3. It's all about TRUMP. He's in the other party, of course, but he is also in every Democrat's head. Democratic voters will want to know how the candidates will run against the incumbent Republican. Will they play nice, or not nice? Some officials have recommended the "high road" by not answering tweets or responding in kind to personal attacks. Others have demanded fighting fire with fire. Generally speaking, Biden, Senators Booker, Klobuchar and Gillibrand are in the first camp, or at least pledge to work with Republicans if elected.Candidates promising a harsher response to Trump include Progressive favorites Warren and Sanders, Senator Harris and some of the lesser-known liberals in the race. This is more about attitude and rhetoric than policy, but it will be important to see how each candidate speaks about the incumbent president.

4. It's all about WINNING. Despite a disingenuous element, Democratic voters still say they want a nominee who can win the election more than an acceptable ideological soulmate. So, each candidate must speak about that goal and how they will achieve it. Progressives will focus on turning out disaffected liberals who they say sat out the last election. Regulars will talk about compromise and forming voter coalitions with independent or moderate voters. This is an eternal question as to the best way to put together a winning electoral coalition. History tells us that center left candidates usually occupy the high ground (Biden), but with Democrats so angry at Trump, a stronger and more forceful ideological appeal (Warren, Sanders, Harris) might carry more weight in 2020 than past elections.

It will be hard to keep track of twenty candidates over two nights.But candidates who focus on catchy rhetoric, key voter blocs, a strong anti-incumbent message and a clear strategy for victory will have been the real winners of this first encounter.

Frank J. Donatelli was Assistant to President Reagan for Political Affairs and was Deputy Chair of the RNC in 2008. He was involved in debate negotiation and preparation for President Reagan in 1984 and Bob Dole in 1996. He is a senior advisor in the federal public affairs group at McGuireWoods Consulting LLC in Washington.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.