"Looking for fireworks": How 2016, and Trump, ushered in the era of the mega-debate

The 2016 campaign ushered in the era of the mega-debate — a bigger field of candidates, a bigger slate of debates, bigger ratings, bigger stakes and a bigger need for a standout exchange. The events — always a political proving ground — have evolved into highly produced spectacles in which an aggressive attack or memorable star turn can lift, or sideline, an Oval Office hopeful.

Those dynamics are now in play in the crowded Democratic race to challenge President Trump, with 20 candidates spread over two nights of initial debates on Wednesday and Thursday. The trick for the Democrats, as with their Republican predecessors, is to find a way to capture attention and break away from the pack.

Trump didn’t necessarily win the debates themselves four years ago, but he always won the show — and, with it, the White House.

“I tell people these are not debates,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ended his presidential run in February 2016. “I was a debater in high school and college, and these are not debates. These are television shows.”