Democrats to Play Varying Hands in Vegas Debate

Democrats to Play Varying Hands in Vegas Debate
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Tuesday night’s first debate among Democrats vying for the 2016 presidential nomination will challenge frontrunner Hillary Clinton to concentrate on Republican candidates rather than her disagreements with four men from her own party.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee will line up on a Las Vegas stage, hoping to capitalize on the spotlight trained upon Clinton during a two-hour event hosted by CNN. Held at the Wynn hotel and casino and moderated by Anderson Cooper, the discussion will launch a series of six primary debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee.

The evening’s empty chair, so to speak, will belong to Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t decided whether to announce a third bid for the presidency. CNN has a podium ready for him, should he opt to kick off a campaign in dramatic fashion by joining the rest of the field Tuesday night. Cooper, interviewed on CNN, said Biden “has the address.”

Rather than a barbed slugfest, the Las Vegas debate is expected to be a wonky reminder that sharp differences exist within a party that hopes to hold the White House after President Obama ends two terms in office. Making strides in Washington for middle-class Americans is one overarching theme, but Clinton and Sanders present different views about Democrats’ populist goals and the role of government. O’Malley, Webb and Chafee, struggling to inch beyond 1 percent in the polls, want to introduce themselves to a national audience that may not have heard them speak.

Each candidate will play a different hand Tuesday.

Clinton, viewed by a majority of Americans as the likely Democratic nominee, according to polls, has the most to lose if she stumbles. She must play defense to overcome her trust deficit (for example, her private email system while serving as secretary of state), while detailing policy “contrasts” with Sanders, her closest declared rival for the nomination. Clinton hopes to wield her experience and preparation to be the first female president against a sprawling panorama of Republican contestants, led at the moment by businessman Donald Trump. Clinton has practically rooted for him to become the GOP nominee, telling audiences that a Trump vs. Clinton contest would be fascinating in its opposing polarities. For months, she has seemed allergic to Sanders’ name, even as his anti-billionaire-class rhetoric attracted millions of young and vocal supporters, including donors, and helped him outpace Clinton in New Hampshire polls. The last thing Clinton wants Tuesday is to alienate Sanders’ fans, whom she would need if she becomes the party’s standard-bearer. The former first lady will try to counter her own baggage, which includes a reputation for policy pirouettes, miscues and muscularity when it comes to the U.S. military. She is seen by some as thin-skinned and heavy-handed, and lacking the optimism and joy millions of Americans look for in a president. To succeed Obama, Clinton is arguing she is not a clone of the 44th or 42nd presidents, even as she works to embrace the factions within her party who admire her husband and Obama.

Sanders has never participated in a national candidate debate, so Las Vegas represents one more in a string of political bets he’s placed since announcing his long-shot candidacy as a Democratic socialist. CNN offers Sanders the largest potential audience during a long political career. He is eager to explain his economic populist proposals, which have seeded his national grassroots following, while defending his expansive view of government. He says he will not bash his Democratic opponents on stage. Clinton is expected to explain her more moderate economic positions by hinting that Sanders’ proposals are fantasies in a GOP-controlled Congress or, if enacted, would cost American taxpayers an estimated $18 trillion over a decade, according to a Wall Street Journal assessment the Sanders campaign didn’t contest. The Vermont senator, known for his blunt speaking style and stubborn disposition, will be pressed to convey presidential leadership qualities and a sophisticated familiarity with international challenges that face the next president.

O’Malley is the candidate most likely to spar with his Democratic opponents Tuesday night on domestic policy, if given the chance to contrast his detailed proposals with theirs. The former Maryland governor, who touts progressive achievements in his home state and draws youthful comparisons with the rest of the Democratic field (all in their 60s and 70s), badly lags in recent polls. Determined to run to Clinton’s left and to capitalize on any large TV audience, O’Malley forcefully pressed the DNC to convene more than four debates before the New Hampshire primaries and Iowa caucuses, to no avail. He accused the DNC of rigging the debate schedule to favor Clinton, an assertion that endeared him to some Democrats but not to party leaders or fans of the frontrunner.

Webb, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran, and Chafee, heir to a wealthy political pedigree, will need powerful debate performances if they want to survive the fall and winter as credible Democratic challengers. Webb’s expertise is international policy, particularly in Asia, and he is not reluctant to question the merits of Obama’s decisions, and implicitly Clinton’s achievements as a member of Obama’s cabinet. Chafee is a former Republican, turned independent, now Democrat. His splashiest headline since June may have been his pitch to transition the United States to the metric system to boost the economy. There is scant evidence that Chafee, who is largely self-funding his bid for the White House, has built a ground organization to compete for voters, endorsements and donors in all the early states.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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