The lineups for the first Democratic primary debates were unveiled Friday, officially setting the stage for the first direct clash between the crowded field of candidates vying for the party's presidential nomination, including a face-off the second night between two front-runners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
As announced by NBC, the first debate, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, will take place over two nights on June 26 and 27. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) confirmed to ABC News in May that the final 20 candidates will be divided into two groups based on polling averages and then randomly assigned to a debate stage – to prevent the higher polling candidates all appearing on the same night
The lineups were decided Friday afternoon during a random drawing at NBC News headquarters in New York City. Candidates' names were written on pieces of paper and divided up into higher-polling and lower-polling groups before a representative from NBC News drew their names out of a box to determine which candidates would debate each night.
The two candidates who have consistently been at or near the top of all early polls, Biden and Sanders, will appear on the same stage alongside other top contenders like California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
With Biden and Sanders on the same stage, the debate over a more moderate or progressive approach will ultimately be the most effective strategy for Democrats hoping to deny President Donald Trump a second term.
Here are the candidates that will take the stage on night one (June 26):
Here are the candidates that will take the stage on night two (June 27):
There are three declared candidates who did not meet the Democratic National Committee's qualification standards for the first debate: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam.
The reactions from campaigns were swift, with some jumping on their upcoming chance to contrast themselves with the races' frontrunners.
“This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary,” Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir wrote in a statement reacting to the debate lineup. "This debate will also provide Senator Sanders the opportunity to highlight his leadership on a host of important issues, including Medicare For All, opposition to the Iraq war, votes against horrific trade agreements, and record of boldly taking on the fossil fuel industry and corporate greed."
A first chance to go head-to-head
The first debates of the nearly two-year-long primary season will give candidates a chance to confront each other head-on and come as candidates are beginning to draw sharp contrasts between each other on both substance and style.
Earlier this week former O'Rourke took aim at Biden, the early front-runner in the race questioning whether or not Biden is the candidate that can galvanize voters and reflects the shifting dynamics in today's Democratic Party.
"We've got to be bigger. You've got to ask yourself where Joe Biden is on the issues that are most important to you," O'Rourke said in an interview on MSNBC Thursday morning, "Did he support the war in Iraq that forever destabilized the Middle East? Did he really believe that women of lower incomes should be able to make their own decisions about their own body, to be able to afford health care in order to do that?"
The same day, Hickenlooper, who calls himself a "pragmatic" progressive, decried Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' argument that Democratic Socialism is the most effective way to pass a progressive policy agenda.
"The urgency now is even greater than before. Democrats must say loudly and clearly that we are not socialists. If we do not, we will end up helping to re-elect the worst President in our country’s history," Hickenlooper argued during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., "'Socialism' is the most efficient attack line Republicans can use against Democrats as long as Trump is at the top of the ticket."
Now, Hickenlooper and Sanders will appear on the same stage later this month, a chance to hash out the argument over socialism directly.
The first debates will also give candidates their first opportunity to pitch their wide array of policy prescriptions to the major issues like climate change, healthcare, foreign policy, immigration and criminal justice reform, that have been percolating in the Democratic primary so far.