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Witcover: The more presidential candidates, the merrier?

Getting politicians like Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders to laugh helps viewers see another side of them, Noah says, and helps him “chip away at the talking points.”

It has long been a cliche that every mother's son (or, recently, daughter) could grow up to be president. Indeed, 16 more-or-less prominent Republicans ran for the top office in 2016, and so far this year, 23 Democrats are doing so for 2020. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana (who?) joined the pack this week, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Four years ago, the other GOP hopefuls volunteered as fodder for humiliation at the hands of political longshot, New York real estate tycoon and world-class con man Donald J. Trump.

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With unvarnished alacrity in huge campaign rallies and a series of televised debates, he made mincemeat of the flock of them, from hapless Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, scion of what at the time was the closest thing to an American royal family.

Mr. Trump crassly branded Mr. Bush "Low Energy Jeb" and dismissed Florida Sen Marco Rubio as "Little Marco." Later he tagged his prime Democratic foe as "Crooked Hillary," an epithet he has continued to use to the present.

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Gone are the days when presidential nominees in both major parties were treated with respect as longtime party leaders who had served apprenticeships as major state governors or senior Senate icons.

Not since the Republican presidential nomination of Indiana businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940 had a complete political outsider been chosen, and Willkie was snowed under by FDR's unprecedented third-term bid.

This time around, the similarly large crop of declared Democratic candidates for 2020 is bereft of old party sages who have won their political spurs on the prominent national stage, with the obvious exception of former Vice President Joe Biden,

Instead, six women who have had little name recognition as veteran Democratic warriors are vying for national leadership, along with least two rank male outsiders entering as blips on the party screen, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg, virtually from out of nowhere.

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Only Mr. Biden is widely seen as an old lion of the Democratic Party. Although he holds a wide early lead in the national polls, the current rap against him is that after 36 years in the Senate and eight as President Barack Obama's running mate and right arm, he is a figure of the past in a party moving from its past moderate-liberal moorings toward modern progressivism.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a year older than Biden, is trailing him in the polls and seemingly losing ground. Mr. Sanders clings to his long self-identification as a democratic socialist who appeals to young voters but maybe less so to his own contemporaries.

The Republican competitive fever that marked the 16-candidate presidential campaign in 2016 meanwhile has been thoroughly doused by Mr. Trump's hijacking of the Grand Old Party and the silencing of any notable opposition in its ranks in Congress.

Only the skeletal challenge of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, an honorable old establishment figure with little backing in the GOP or elsewhere, offers even the mildest semblance of internal pushback against the unlikely occupant of the Oval Office.

What significance the 23-candidate Democratic field against Mr. Trump holds for 2020 may be no more than sowing confusion among the electorate right now. But a long 18 months lies ahead in which that field will sort out, with most of the contenders laboring to survive before one of them will emerge to take him on.

The spotlight inevitably will be on the contending Dems, with Mr. Biden already strategically positioning himself by aiming aggressive fire at the incumbent, who probably unwittingly has chosen to anoint him as this likely foe in November 2020.

Other Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, continue to downgrade possible impeachment, but the prime Democratic goal unquestionably remains deposing Trump at the ballot box if not before. And Mr. Biden offers himself boldly right now as his party's best messenger and most credible prospect to achieve that central objective.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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