Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be center stage Tuesday night at the first Democratic presidential debate.
The event, hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, Nevada, will provide a prime-time opportunity for Clinton to quiet some of the grumbling Democratic discontent over her initial campaign stumbles.
And the debate will also be an opportunity for her relatively unknown Democratic rivals to introduce themselves to the broader public for the first time.
Unlike CNN’s Republican debate, the network’s Tuesday event is unlikely to be the same no-holds-barred grudge match, as there’s been far less vitriol and personal animosity among the Democratic contenders so far.
“Even where the Democratic candidates may differ with each other, we know they will all be laser-focused on helping the middle class, not on Donald Trump,” Democratic National Committee spokesman TJ Helmstetter told Business Insider.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia), and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) are all likely to try and draw some pointed policy — and some less-pointed personality — contrasts with the front-runner.
Vice President Joe Biden, who is mulling a run, will also have a podium waiting for him should he decide to suddenly enter the fray in time for Tuesday’s debate. But that appears unlikely.
The other Democratic candidates’ possible strategies can be found below.
Sanders enters Tuesday’s debate the strongest of all of the non-Clinton candidates.
The fiery Vermont populist has surged early-state primary polls. His campaign events routinely attract enormous crowds. And his campaign is relatively flush with cash despite his outsider status and his frequent criticism of moneyed interests.
But as an increasingly viable contender, Sanders is also likely to drawn some tough debate questions. As veteran Democratic consultant David Axelrod noted Monday on CNN, for example, Sanders will probably have to defend his less-than-aggressive record on gun control.
Sanders has argued that guns represent something different in rural Vermont than they do in urban environments, but the gun-control issue provides his rivals with a rare opportunity outflank the liberal firebrand on the left.
The debate stage also gives Sanders the opportunity to address one of his most glaring weaknesses: general-election viability. Many political observers — and even some of Sanders’ own supporters — don’t view the self-described “democratic socialist” as someone who would win the White House as the Democratic nominee.
But if Sanders is able to project himself as someone voters could actually see winning the November election or in the Oval Office, he may be able to walk away from the stage with a decisive boost.
As far as Clinton is concerned, Sanders appears set to to offer backhand compliments via better-late-than-never praise for her recent policy announcements against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and Keystone XL pipeline.
“People will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and big corporations with the secretary,” Sanders said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
O’Malley arguably has the most on the line with Tuesday’s debate.
Despite a tangible record on a number of hot-button progressive issues — including immigration, gun control, and marriage rights — his campaign has yet to seize much traction. His name barely registers in the polls, and his fundraising has lagged.
But O’Malley argued Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that ordinary people are only now about to tune into the race.
“It seems that this campaign’s been going on for a long time. But for the vast majority of Americans, who are searching for a new leader who will move us out of these rather divided and self-defeating times of gridlock and inaction, this race is really just beginning for the Democratic Party,” he said.
“By this time eight years ago, we had had nine debates,” O’Malley added while touting his own record of “actions” instead of mere words. “Now we’re going to have our very first debate on Tuesday.”
If there are any major fireworks Tuesday night, it could be between O’Malley and Clinton. O’Malley has been increasingly feisty with Clinton in recent weeks, publicly mocking her reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, pointing out that she’s “always quick for the military intervention,” and worrying that the Democratic primary is being defined by her “email scandal.“
Axelrod argued that O’Malley could also play the “generational card” against both Clinton and Sanders.
“I can see the 52-year-old O’Malley pressing the case that the party needs fresh, forward-looking leadership. It also would be a not-so-subtle swipe at Sanders, who is 74, and Clinton, who would be 69 on Inauguration Day, tying Ronald Reagan for America’s oldest incoming president,”Axelrod wrote.
Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb
Two of the biggest question marks hanging above the upcoming debate relate to what Chafee and Webb will be doing on the stage. They have been running under-the-radar campaigns with far less hectic schedules than most of their rivals.
Neither developed much of a national profile while in office, though Webb earned some kudos on prison reform and Chafee some plaudits from liberals for his left-leaning votes as a Republican US senator.
Chafee could draw contrast with Clinton over their respective Senate records. As Chafee has pointed out, he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Clinton voted to support at the time. Additionally, Chafee has sought to align himself with President Barack Obama by backing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is opposed by Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley.
“I guess I’m the only Democratic candidate for president standing strong with President Obama on this issue,” Chafee said last week of the Pacific Rim trade deal, according to The Hill. “You have to be consistent.”
Meanwhile, Webb’s campaign has been even more of an enigma. The decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Navy secretary could speak with gravitas about national-security issues. He notably came out against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Clinton and most Democratic officials support.
However, Webb’s lack of public campaign appearances makes it difficult to discern his plans — either for the Democratic primary nomination or for the debates.
“If there’s a chance for a wild card on the stage at Tuesday’s lead-off Democratic debate,” The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner wrote Sunday, “the smart money’s on former senator Jim Webb of Virginia.”
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