Hickenlooper Bennet 2013 (copy)

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (center) and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (right) speak to reporters after touring flood-damaged areas of Colorado by helicopter in September 2013.

Colorado presidential hopefuls John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet will share the stage on the second night of the two-night kickoff debate of Democratic presidential candidates in Miami at the end of the month.

They'll also share the stage with four of the five front-running candidates, with the fifth -- Elizabeth Warren -- appearing the previous night.

NBC announced Friday how it will divvy up the 20 participating candidates for the first debate of the 2020 election campaign, June 26-27.

Joining Hickenlooper, the former governor, and Bennet, Colorado's senior U.S. senator, on June 27 will be former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; California Sen. Kamala Harris; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; author Marianne Williamson; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.

The previous night's lineup will be Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

> RELATED: 2020 WATCH | More voices call for Hickenlooper to switch to Senate race

Debate officials had promised to ensure that top-tier and lagging candidates were spread roughly evenly over the two nights.

Nevertheless, four of the five candidates with the best numbers in recent polls as compiled by Real Clear Politics -- Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris -- will all appear on the second night.

Fox News calls the lineup "lopsided." The Associated Press called the second night "top-heavy." And Politico says June 27 is "clearly the main event. ... Among the top tier of candidates, Warren’s got the other night all to herself."

Representatives of 20 campaigns gathered in a conference room at NBC headquarters Friday to watch slips of paper with candidates’ names picked out of two boxes. There were separate boxes with the names of candidates polling at above or below 2 percent — an attempt to make sure most of the lesser-known candidates were not grouped together and given the stigma of a minor-league debate.

Being paired with Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, gives Buttigieg an opportunity to emphasize the “next generation” theme that he has been touting. At 37, Buttigieg is the youngest of the leading contenders.

The six female contenders will be evenly divided between the two nights. The two African American candidates, Booker and Harris, will also be on separate nights. Ideologically, two favorites of the party’s liberal wing, Sanders and Warren, won’t be going head-to-head, either.

Among the rest of the field, Inslee could find benefits in drawing the first night with fewer front-runners to emphasize his climate change-oriented effort. Hickenlooper, who has been among the most aggressive critics of Sanders’ democratic socialism, will have a chance to make those points to him face-to-face.

NBC will face its own test, to see if it makes compelling programming out of crowded, fractious stages on the opening nights of debate season.

The debates in Miami will offer a prime opportunity for many White House hopefuls to reshape a race defined in recent weeks by Biden's domination of national and many early state polls.

> RELATED: Democratic chairman: Presidential debate rules fair despite complaints from Bennet, other candidates

Hickenlooper and Bennet have been polling near the back of the pack. They both learned Thursday that they made the cut for the Miami debate, which officials decided to limit to 20 candidates.

Those who were not picked for the debate, based on low polling scores and fundraising: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel; Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam; and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton.

The first 2020 Democratic presidential debate will air on NBC (carried on KUSA-9News in Denver and KOAA-News5 in Colorado Springs), MSNBC and Telemundo (KDEN in Denver).

The moderators will be Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Díaz-Balart.

“This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary,” said Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir.

Already some campaigns began fundraising off the debate lineups. Booker’s, Klobuchar’s and O’Rourke’s campaigns are each hosting a drawing offering a trip for two to Miami, including flights, a night in a hotel and tickets to the debate, for a lucky donor.

Buttigieg’s campaign sent out an email saying that appearing in “the first Democratic primary debate will allow many new people to hear Pete for the first time.”

“Please consider making a donation today to make sure we’re as strong as we can be heading into the debate,” the Buttigieg email said.

Delaney’s campaign said he was “pleased to be sharing the debate stage with many strong candidates, particularly Senator Warren who, like me, is talking about new ideas. I look forward to a debate on issues and solutions, not personality and politics.”

Advisers of several leading campaigns have argued that debates are, for their candidates, as much about avoiding bad moments as they are about making any gains in the race. For the rest of the field, the national stage is a chance for that rare viral moment that elevates a struggling campaign.

At least one Republican veteran of crowded primary fights warned Democrats against putting too much stock in debates with so many candidates.

“I’ve talked to some campaigns who say, ‘Our plan is to do well on the debate stage,’ but that’s like saying you plan to get struck by lightning,’” said John Weaver, a Republican adviser to John McCain’s presidential runs and more recently to then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 effort.

Debates become more important, Weaver said, “as this gets whittled down.”

The Associated Press and Colorado Politics contributed.




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