Dems Debate Saturday (Audience Shrinkage Expected)

Dems Debate Saturday (Audience Shrinkage Expected)
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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who will be joined by Martin O’Malley Saturday in their third and final presidential debate of 2015, frequently assure their supporters that Democrats agree more often than they are divided.

On the weekend before Christmas-- when Hollywood’s “Star Wars” juggernaut is opening in theaters worldwide -- the debate audience may wither, but the candidate contrasts may widen. The Democratic rivals won’t have another official invitation to spar until Jan. 17, when they’re set to debate in Charleston, S.C. And by then, caucus and primary voters in early states will be just weeks away from casting their ballots.

Campaigning Wednesday in Iowa where she is making a strong showing in the polls, Clinton described the 2016 presidential race as “one of the watershed elections” in American history, and she encouraged a town-hall audience to carefully measure the country’s problems against proposed solutions offered by conservative candidates.

“It gives us a chance to have a great debate, to lay out an agenda,” she said about next year’s contest.

But before that great debate can occur, Clinton seeks to dispatch her immediate competition. In New Hampshire, polls that show Sanders with a narrow lead suggest an opening to defeat the Democratic frontrunner in February’s primary, which means this weekend’s debate in Manchester could prove livelier than the first two match-ups in October and November. On Monday, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Sanders predicted he had an “excellent chance” to win there and said turnout would be key, especially with the state’s open primary.

Under the guise of momentum and organization, Sanders on Thursday welcomed a major union endorsement from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America, one of the nation’s largest unions. Separately, Democracy for America, an independent progressive political action committee that boasts a million members, endorsed Sanders the same day, making its first presidential primary pick since the organization’s inception in 2004. DFA, which encouraged Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to run for president, promised door-knocking and outreach to back Sanders in key states.

Sanders’ campaign also announced an impressive tally of 2 million contributions to date from more than 800,000 small-dollar donors. The Vermont senator, an advocate for campaign finance reform who condemns the independent super PACs bolstering Clinton and many Republican candidates, argues his grassroots backing ensures his independence from lobbyists and corporate special interests.

“What our vision of a political revolution has already accomplished is to show that we can run a strong and we believe winning campaign without a super PAC, without contributions from millionaires and billionaires,” Sanders said in a statement.

Although Clinton has amassed the lion’s share of labor endorsements this year, the CWA announcement bolstered the lawmaker’s claims to organizational competitiveness and electability.

CWA President Chris Shelton praised Sanders for his efforts to overhaul politics as usual. “He stands against the flood of money in politics that’s corrupting our democracy and attacking the right to vote. He knows that we have to take on the rich and powerful special interests to turn around this economy and end the 40 years of stagnant wages that working families have endured,” Shelton said.

Sanders’ team celebrated what it described as the “sharp contrast” between 261 individual Sanders donors who contributed the maximum $2,700 allowed by law, and the 17,575 Clinton donors who have reached that ceiling to date, citing Federal Election Commission reports.

Thematically, Sanders will use the Manchester debate to argue anew that he has the judgment and credibility to represent the interests of poor and middle-class Americans if elected president, in contrast with Clinton, whom he assails as too cozy with Wall Street, big banks and billionaire benefactors who he argues have their own financial interests at heart.

Among many progressive voters, even those who predict to pollsters that Clinton will be the nominee, Sanders’ arguments have resonated.

When a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap took a microphone in Iowa City Wednesday to ask Clinton if she would pledge to spurn campaign contributions from the “fossil fuel industry,” the candidate initially said she didn’t believe she was supported by petroleum industry donors before pivoting to a description of Iowa’s wind energy, her ambition to expand solar power by the “end of my second term,” and her opposition to oil drilling off the coast of South Carolina.

Finally circling back to the original question, Clinton ducked making a pledge, but assured the audience that Big Oil perceives her as “a lost cause.”

After a rocky summer, Clinton this fall solidified her overall lead among her rivals and is now running more than 20 points ahead of Sanders in national polls and in Iowa. O’Malley, who is hunting for media exposure and has complained bitterly to the Democratic National Committee that its schedule of six debates favors Clinton, remains stuck in low single digits. Although the first two debates did not reconfigure the contest, Sanders’ Democratic socialist agenda and a deep independent streak among New Hampshire voters point to a scrappy Granite State battle.

According to the most recent RealClearPolitics average, Sanders leads Clinton by five points in New Hampshire, 48 to 43 percent, with O’Malley at 4 percent.

Beginning last spring, the Clinton team conceded the possibility that Sanders might win the New Hampshire primary. But in the campaign’s calculations, the former New York senator would dispatch Sanders everywhere else given her huge war chest, organization and experience. In 2008, Clinton lost Iowa and narrowly won New Hampshire before eventually losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. In Clinton’s view, Sanders is not the same sort of political force that blew up her last bid, although support for Sanders among younger progressive voters is a reminder of surprises that can emerge from voter demographics and geography.

If income inequality is Sanders’ debate sweet spot, the corollary for the former secretary of state is international affairs. Heading into the Manchester debate, Clinton on Tuesday outlined what she called a “360-degree” strategy to combat the Islamic State and domestic terrorism, largely echoing President Obama’s strategy.

“These are hard decisions,” she said in Iowa a day after delivering that counterterrorism speech in Minnesota. She reminded Iowans about her time in the White House Situation Room offering advice and building international coalitions as a member of the president’s cabinet.

“I think a lot of what the president is doing is beginning to work,” she said.

Each of the Democratic candidates has strongly condemned their Republican counterparts, including Donald Trump, for focusing counterterrorism proposals on Muslims, linking Islam to terrorism in ways they assert are discriminatory and dangerous bait for Islamic State recruitment.

The ABC News debate moderators, Martha Raddatz, a veteran journalist who has reported extensively from the Middle East, and anchor David Muir, will question the candidates about their strategies to battle ISIS and reckon with domestic extremists, and their techniques to render those “hard decisions” Clinton spoke about in Iowa.

The initial Democratic debate in October, which included former Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island before each withdrew from the race, attracted an average 15.3 million viewers on CNN on a Tuesday night. (By contrast, an average 24 million viewers tuned in for the first GOP debate, and Tuesday’s Republican face-off drew an average 18 million viewers.)

Last month, with the Democratic field down to three and Vice President Biden staying out of the ring, the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, broadcast by CBS News on a Saturday, attracted an average 8.5 million viewers. During that two-hour event, Sanders suggested Clinton was beholden to corporate and wealthy donors; Clinton accused Sanders of impugning her character; and O’Malley, a former Maryland governor who is decades younger than his rivals, said it was time for a fresh generation of executive experience in the White House.

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

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