Firehouse Partner Alex Conant Gives Debate Advice Ahead of First Democrat Primary Debate

June 24, 2019

Debate Veterans’ Advice for a Crowded Stage: Be Brief and Ready for Broken Rules

Candidates and aides from the packed 2016 Republican field say they learned lessons the 2020 Democratic contenders should heed

By John McCormick and Tarini Parti

June 22, 2019 5:30 am ET

On what candidates can accomplish:

Given such little speaking time, the lesser-known candidates may not be able to achieve much beyond the basics. “You have to introduce yourself and try to stand out, which is really hard to do,” said Alex Conant, who was GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s communications director in the 2016 presidential election.


On the logistics of a large field:

The large field means normally routine provisions, like holding rooms, can become challenging because the debate venues don’t always have enough space for all the competitors.

“It can definitely be an issue,” Mr. Conant said. “Most take place in an arena that’s usually used for hosting two teams and not 10 competitors.”

Besides family and advisers, big donors will also often demand backstage access, Mr. Conant said. “All of a sudden, it becomes a pretty big entourage,” he said. “For most of these candidates, it will be their first debate and it can be really nerve-racking.”

On attacking other candidates:

“In these early debates, voters don’t want to see the candidates attacking each other,” Mr. Conant said.

In 2016, Sen. Rand Paul attacked Mr. Trump during the first debate as a way to try to boost his slumping campaign. It didn’t work.

“If you don’t win that first exchange, you aren’t coming back for the second one,” Mr. Conant said. “Rand was never really heard from again.”

On the debate rules:

While most of the candidates stuck to the debate rules for time limits and interruptions in the initial meeting, Mr. Conant said the rules quickly fell by the wayside.

“There are no rules,” he said. “By the third debate, they were all ignoring the dinging bells and interrupting each other as often as possible. When there are that many candidates, it’s very hard for the moderators to strictly enforce the rules of the debate.”