South Florida Watches Crowded Democratic Field Launch First Debate In Miami

This report will be updated during the evening.

8:00 pm

After traveling here from Springfield, Illinois, Mark Daniels paced up and down outside the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami - the site of the two Democratic presidential debates - and waved yarmulkes for sale. That is, yarmulkes engraved with the names of the 20 different candidates taking part in the debates - and even one with President Trump's.

Peace activist Mark Daniels' yarmulkes engraved with candidates' names.
Credit Gerard Albert III / WLRN

The traditional Jewish skullcaps were among the more unusual products being peddled outside the debate venue. But, wearing an apron that read "Weed out hate, sow the seeds of peace," Daniels said he'd already sold 20 at $10 a pop. The most popular so far: the yarmulkes with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker's name.

8:30 pm

Across the street from the Arsht Center, Trump supporters crowded under a large, red-white-and-blue banner hung by the Federated Republican Women of North Miami that read: "No Socialism, No Comunismo." It was a reminder of one of the main themes Republicans plan to trumpet in the upcoming election - namely, that policy proposals like "Medicare for all" popular with many Democratic candidates will put the U.S. under socialism.

9:00 pm

Activist Paul Mejia holds signs calling for climate change awareness outside the Arsht Center before the Democratic debates.
Credit Pedro Portal / Miami Herald

The 10 candidates taking part in the first night of debates are:

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren; former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro; Washington Governor Jay Inslee; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

The hosts are NBC News anchors Lester Holt and Jose Diaz-Balart and Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie.

Warren and other candidates spent the first round of questions claiming the admittedly healthy and robust U.S. economy is benefitting only rich individuals and corporations. "It's not working for average Americans," said Booker.

O'Rourke seemed to understand he was in South Florida and started his comments en español.

READ MORE: 1st Democratic Debate: Live NPR Analysis of Night 1

9:10 pm

In Key West, meanwhile, Monroe County Democratic Party chairwoman Bert Sise was at a watch party at the Shannah Key Irish Pub and Grill - and quickly observed, "Hopefully some [of the candidates] will be eliminated real soon. There's way too many - like 20 too many."

The debate watch party at the Shannah Key Irish Pub and Grill in Key West.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

The ten other Democratic candidates who qualified for these debates will gather at the Arsht Center Thursday night. (Five others did not receive high enough poll numbers to qualify to take part.)

9:20 pm

The fireworks inside the Arsht Center started about 20 minutes into the debate regarding health care, with the field arguing, sometimes heatedly, over the Medicare-for-all proposals, which Warren in particular defended.

9:30 pm

At a co-working space a few blocks from the Arsht Center, former Tallahassee Mayor and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum hosted his own watch party for more than 100 people and called the first night of primary debates "the beginning of the end of the Trump administration." 

Democratic presidential front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both endorsed Gillum's gubernatorial candidacy. But at the debate watch gathering, lit in blue, Gillum told his guests: "I want you to know this: I'm candidate-agnostic right now, alright? I almost don't care who the [Democratic presidential] nominee is, so long as we do the work we have to do to flip this state blue."

Gillum has begun an effort to register a million new Florida voters by 2020.

9:45 pm

Andrew Gillum addresses guests at his debate watch party near the Arsht Center.
Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN

When the issue of immigration was raised, the candidates as expected hammered at Trump's crackdown policies - and blamed them for the recent border deaths of undocumented immigrants, including the tragic drowning of a Salvadoran man and his toddler daughter this week in the Rio Grande.

Castro even called for decriminalizing the entry of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. (to make it merely a civil infraction.) Surprisingly, however, there was little discussion of the controversial Homestead detention center for child migrants that many of the candidates have visited or will visit this week as a symbol of Trump's anti-immigration agenda.

10:00 pm

For the second hour, NBC's hosts are Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow. A technical audio glitch, however, forced the network to delay the debate.

It resumed some five mintues later with gun control - a particularly anguished issue here a year-and-a-half after the shooting massacre at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. "If you need a license to drive a car in this country, you should need a license to own a gun," O'Rourke said, expressing the general sentiment of the field.

10:20 pm

Trump supporters demonstrating across the street from the Arsht Center before the Democratic debate.
Credit Sherrilyn Cabrera / WLRN

Just as compelling to South Floridians was the next debate issue: climate change, especially sea-level rise. Asked how they'd help places like Miami build resilience and mitigation, the candidates weighed proposals like carbon taxes. But they were conspiculously less specific about how communities like Miami Beach should be assisted in the effort.

11:00 pm

The debate watch party scene was robust in downtown Miami. Several bars featured debate drinking games; some heard boo's flying whenever President Trump's name was mentioned or Cardi B playlists during commercial breaks.

A few blocks from the Arsht Center, the 1306 Bar was packed for a debate event hosted by the political organizations New Florida Majority and She the People. It included a women of color panel addressing questions concerning minority communities. Panelist and Haitian-American community activist Marleine Bastien said she hoped the Democratic candidates would address the growing "climate gentrification" issue that Miami's Little Haiti is confronting.

Seminole Tribe of Florida member Kellie Tigertail and New Florida Majority organizer Kelli Ann Thomas watch the debate 1306 Bar in downtown Miami.
Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN

"Black and brown communities are being driven out, forced out, because developers with money and power come," Bastien said.

Back at the Arsht Center - in the spin room - Booker (who also took his Spanish for a test drive during the debate) said he thought "a lot of folks got a chance to see who I am and got a chance to see my passion on the issues, and I think we had an extraordinary night."

But aside from Warren, one of the breakout candidates of the evening may have been Castro. Google searches for his name spiked more than 2,400 percent during the course of the debate, thanks in part to proposals like decriminalizing the illegal crossing of the U.S. border.

"I think the fact that this first debate was here [in Miami] in particular was especially meaningful given his [Latino] background but also his focus on so many issues that really are relevant to immigrant communities," Castro's campaign manager, Maya Rupert, told WLRN. She said Castro plans to spend some time in Little Havana and make a visit to the Homestead shelter this week before returning to his home base in Texas.