When the first Democratic presidential primary debate kicks off Wednesday night, Kirkland Dent will be watching.
Dent, 28, a medical librarian at Mercer University in Macon, has been trying to keep up with the sprawling Democratic field aiming to unseat President Donald Trump — “I can probably name 80% of them,” he said. But he is looking forward to seeing them in action. “I’m curious about what their goals are, what issues they want to tackle.”
So are Judy Hauser, Michael Murphy-McCarthy and John Chastain. They are among about a dozen Democratic and independent voters in Georgia who have agreed to take part in an informal focus group organized by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to discuss the 2020 Democratic primary race. The AJC checked in with them for the first time ahead of the debates Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, the first opportunity many voters will get to see the candidates answer questions for a national audience.
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For the most part, the Georgia voters said they have been paying some attention to the race but want to know more. That’s true of Democratic voters nationally, too. According to a poll released this week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs, only 35% of Democrats who are registered to vote say they’re paying close attention to the campaign.
The size of the field doesn’t help, and most of the Georgia voters who talked to the AJC said they are eager for it to thin out a bit. The debates, which will feature 10 candidates on stage each night, won’t give the contenders a lot of time to make their case.
“It’s going to be really, really hard to stand out in that big a crowd,” said Murphy-McCarthy, who lives in Peachtree Corners and works in IT.
“It will be easier to fall down than to stand out.”
Dent said a number of candidates have stood out for him so far: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. But he’s open to being surprised by lesser-known candidates. “It’s important for our generation to start paying attention a lot more,” he said.
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Chastain, 73, lives in largely Republican Cherokee County. “If I say I am a Democrat, it’s like I have the plague,” he joked. He said he’s very interested in the Democratic primary race and wants to hear candidates get specific at the debates. “I’m looking for some action plans,” he said, “I want to know what they are going to do, not just getting Trump out.”
He’s retired and said health care is a top issue.
Hauser, a registered nurse from Buckhead, wants a candidate who can win. “We need someone who is going to be able to take on Trump and his mouth,” she said.
She said she likes Biden but is also interested in Buttigieg and Harris.
Biden, she said, “has very good core values. Yes, he’s made some mistakes, but who hasn’t?”
His age doesn’t bother her. “I see him as a one-term president that will bring this country back on even keel,” she said.
Murphy-McCarthy, 51, said he’s been impressed by Warren but says he’s open to the others. “I’m OK with somebody coming out of nowhere,” he said.
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Howard Giambrone of Coweta County is an independent who has mostly voted for Republicans in the past, but he is considering a Democrat in 2020. It won’t be Bernie Sanders or Warren, who he says are too liberal. He said he is looking for a candidate who is fiscally responsible, supportive of the military and has what he considers a moderate view on immigration. Giambrone’s wife is from Colombia and he doesn’t like Trump’s immigration policies. “I want to strengthen the border but make coming here (legally) less difficult,” he said.
So far he thinks Biden and Cory Booker are possibilities.
What can the candidates say to win him over?
“I want to hear fresh ideas and get away from trashing Trump,” he said.
William Black, 38, is a housekeeper in Jones County. He said his top issues are race relations and global warming, and his favorite candidates so far are Sanders and Biden.
He isn’t too worried about the size of the field.
“They will weed themselves out,” he said. He’s happy to see the enthusiasm.
“It’s good for the Democratic Party that there’s that level of interest of people who want to change the country.”
How to follow Democratic presidential debates
NBC will host the first Democratic presidential debates Wednesday and Thursday, starting at 9 and concluding at 11 each night.
Each night will feature 10 candidates.
The debates will be broadcast by NBC News and also appear on MSNBC and Telemundo. Telemundo will broadcast the debate in Spanish.
They also will stream online free on NBC News’ digital platforms, including NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News Mobile App and OTT apps on Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, in addition to Telemundo’s digital platforms.
NBC News will also stream the debates live and in full on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.