Biden has always been a strong debater, but he hasn’t faced anyone since Ryan seven years ago, and hasn’t debated another Democrat in more than a decade. The first Democratic showdowns, in Miami at the end of June—over two nights with 10 candidates each— will be the biggest moment in the 2020 race so far, and Biden, as the front-runner, clearly has the most to lose. Biden’s team has kept him mostly out of sight since he launched his campaign at the end of April. Staying out of the way means he has less chance of making a comment that could be twisted into a news-cycle-defining scandal. That’s the upside. The downside, beyond having to fend off snide tweets about his skimpy schedule and articles questioning whether he’s too old to keep up, is that he’s getting almost no practice taking voter questions at town halls or in open exchanges with reporters. Now if he stumbles or screws up, it’ll be a prime-time event, with the rest of the field and an internet full of pundits ready to pounce. (On Tuesday, Biden released his long-promised climate plan and was immediately attacked both for not going far enough in his proposals and, in an echo of the 1987 scandal, for failing to include citations for certain passages.)
Biden has told friends that part of the reason for sticking to an ultra-light schedule is to create more time for debate prep, which for him tends to be less about conducting mock sessions and role-playing than digging into briefing books. This will likely hold: Biden’s aides are not convinced that any kind of interaction he’d have at a town hall or other event is comparable to what’s awaiting him onstage. His campaign staffers expect the debates to either crystallize his top spot, or turn the primary into less of a marathon with Biden out ahead and more like two dozen Slinkies tumbling down a flight of stairs.