Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrive for a closed-door briefing on Iran in the auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center on May 21. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

The luck of the draw has given two second-tier Democratic contenders a chance to shine. Now Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) just need to run with it.

Booker and Klobuchar are both impressive candidates. They are graduates of elite colleges and law schools and have spent decades in public service. In a normal cycle, each would stand out as a serious contender.

But the 2020 Democratic nomination campaign is anything but normal. Twenty-four contenders make it more of a clown car than a campaign, and the party’s loud and proud progressive wing is like a political black hole, drawing everyone near by the force of its gravity. Booker and Klobuchar have thus far resisted the full force of that pull and, as a result, remain mired behind the front-runners in every poll.

But the random draw that determined who will participate in which of the two debates next week has given them a lifeline. They will be on the stage on the first night and will only face Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) among the top-tier contenders. That gives them a shot at both airtime and, crucially, shaping the post-debate media reports. Each needs to take some risks and aim to be “the story.”

Klobuchar needs to take the biggest risk. She has thus far refused to turn with the progressive winds, choosing not to endorse programs such as Medicare-for-all and free college tuition that others in the race have proposed. This means her chances depend upon the near-majority of Democrats who call themselves moderates — but who are locked up by former vice president Joe Biden.

Klobuchar must show those moderates that she shares their values and has a better chance to win than Biden. She should start by telling viewers who she is — a 59-year-old mom, a lawyer, a senator. She should talk about how her experience with an alcoholic father helped teach her determination in the face of difficulty and compassion. She should clearly lay out what she’s for — broader health-care coverage, progress on climate change, abortion rights. She should note that she’s won affluent suburbs and blue-collar votes in America’s heartland, the part of the country Democrats must retake if they are to beat Trump. But she should do more.

She should also pick a fight with Warren and, in absentia, Sanders over what it means to be a Democrat. She should contrast Sanders’s overt and Warren’s covert socialism with her steady embrace of longtime Democratic ideals. Klobuchar should emphasize that the United States needs to be reformed, not transformed, and that this has always been the Democratic Party’s goal.

Sanders and Warren, she should say, would divide the country when it needs uniting because they want too much too fast — and risk getting nothing as a result. Perhaps she can quote from the speech that launched President Barack Obama’s national career, his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he invoked the image of national unity while pledging fealty to the progressive agenda. However Klobuchar does it, the message should be clear: Moderate and mildly liberal Democrats, I am the change you’ve been waiting for.

Booker should take a slightly different road. He’s made more nods to the progressive wing than has Klobuchar, and also is younger (50) and a person of color. He needs to ride those qualities and stress that he represents America’s future. He should avoid confrontation and instead try to project the image of a leader. Perhaps he should even, against typical strategy, interrupt to agree with the others, but then expand on their points to tie them to a story of a new America dedicated to opportunity for all.

This approach would maximize his biggest advantage: his considerable personal charisma and verbal ability. Booker in person can be mesmerizing and inspiring, but a debate format does not lend itself to his strengths. He should instead treat the debate as a moderated discussion where he weaves insights into stories, giving viewers a chance to see what Booker’s friends and allies see — a serious man of action.

Above all, both candidates should avoid the temptation to play it safe. The criteria for participation in this fall’s debates will be tightened, effectively winnowing down the field. Both candidates are on the cusp of being left out of those even more important contests, exclusion from which signals to donors and activists alike that their campaigns are slowly losing steam. Avoiding mistakes is a good way to campaign for the vice presidency, but it’s a terrible way to break through and grab the brass ring.

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Klobuchar and Booker need to take chances next week to make impressions that will last.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Let’s get in some debating at the debates

Stuart Stevens: Democrats, band together. Demand better debates.

Paul Waldman: The 2020 Democrats will debate soon. Here’s why it will be awful.

Alexandra Petri: Suggested rules for the Democratic primary debates

Hugh Hewitt: Democrats, don’t turn the 2020 debates into traffic jams