The key question tonight may be whether Sen. Bernie Sanders appears outside the Democratic mainstream. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The Daily 202’s James Hohmann breaks down what he’ll be watching tonight as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee face off for the first time
Here’s what Hohmann has his eyes on:
Will there be fireworks? Without Donald Trump, tonight surely will be much less entertaining than the first two GOP debates. There are unlikely to be personal attacks during the first showdown between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As Philip Rucker previews on the front page of today’s Post, both candidates have signaled that they will wear VELVET GLOVES: “Each plans to focus on his or her own policy proposals and backgrounds, drawing comparisons with each other wherever appropriate but avoiding the kind of direct attacks that have been so prominent in the Republican race.”
But how hard does CNN try to orchestrate a Hillary pile-on?Producers want good television and ratings. If the two leading candidates do not go after each other aggressively, watch for moderator Anderson Cooper to try goading the three underdog candidates who will also be on stage into taking shots at them. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb or ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee could come out swinging at the Democratic frontrunner and putative nominee. But if they pass, then it will fall upon the questioners to push Hillary on her private e-mail server, as well as her leftward lurch on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone XL Pipeline and Wall Street reform.
Cooper insists he won’t tee up fights. “I’m always uncomfortable with that notion of setting people up in order to kind of promote some sort of a face-off,” Cooper said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
I don’t buy that. But it’s also possible that CNN will use the other two questioners, Dana Bash and CNN en Español anchor Juan Carlos Lopez, to play the bad cop to Cooper’s good cop. And CNN’s Don Lemon, reading questions submitted through Facebook, could pinch hit.
How does Clinton handle Sanders without being too dismissive? Let’s remember that Hillary is a very talented debater. She fared well in her two dozen showdowns with Barack Obama. Her relentless message discipline suits itself to this medium, and she has real gravitas coming from 25 years spent on the public stage. A lot of what people have heard about her recently was translated through the media filter; she comes across better in person than in defensive soundbytes.
Hillary seeks to look presidential and electable tonight, but she does not want to look stiff. While getting into an argument with her foes isn’t advisable, staying above the fray might make her look entitled. The key for Clinton is to show some energy and fire while also highlighting her experience. It’s a tricky balancing act, but pre-debate expectations are pretty low. So she should be able to pretty easily exceed them.
Will Bernie lose his temper? Sanders does not suffer fools and risks coming across as unlikable if he gets snarly. Back in Vermont, past rivals say it is relatively easy to get under the senator’s skin. Bernie is not prepping through mock debates, and he’s not used to mixing it up with critics.
Does Sanders, who is not even a registered Democrat, come across as outside the mainstream? On “Meet the Press” this weekend, Sanders said “no” when asked if he is a capitalist. “I’m a democratic socialist,” he reiterated.
Bernie is also on the wrong side of the Democratic base when it comes to both guns and immigration. He voted for background checks but has opposed an assault weapons ban, blaming his rural state’s love of firearms. Bowing to organized labor, and concerned about pressure on wages, he’s dubious of allowing more immigrants into the United States. Both are flashpoints that he could get pressed on from the left. If there are multiple follow-ups over his past votes on these issues, Sanders might get flustered.
Obama 2008 strategist David Axelrod notes in an op-ed that Sanders has not talked much about “flesh-and-blood human beings” and their stories. “One listens to Sanders’ jeremiads and is reminded of the old adage about liberals who ‘love humanity and hate people,’” Axelrod wrote for CNN.com. “The debate is an opportunity for Sanders to present a more empathetic side — less grumpy old man and more caring advocate. Sanders also almost certainly will field questions about his youthful writings as a left-wing polemicist, which seem a little crazy now, probably even to him.”
Can Sanders make inroads with minority voters? A CNN/ORC pollpublished yesterday showed that he’s only getting 4 percent among African-Americans in South Carolina. Clinton led with 59 percent of South Carolina’s black voters, who make up more than half the Democratic primary electorate in the state with the first Southern primary. Clinton crushed him 49 to 18 percent and, in Nevada, 50 percent to 34 percent. Sanders does well with white voters, which is why he’s led in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, but there are doubts he can thrive past the first two states on the nominating calendar.
Does O’Malley get a post-debate bounce? It’s hard to foresee the Maryland governor becoming even less of a factor in the Democratic contest. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published yesterday showed that he’s getting just 4 percent among Democratic primary voters in his home state! (Hillary leads in Maryland with 43 percent, followed by Joe Biden at 26 percent and Sanders at 20 percent.)
No one has pushed harder for more debates than O’Malley. If he does not have a breakout performance, his money struggles will become more acute and it will be harder to woo early state activists. “If he gives a mediocre performance, he’s done,” a Democratic operative with ties to the Maryland governor told The Post’s John Wagner.
Does Jim Webb show up? The ex-Virginia senator is the biggest wildcard because you never know what you’re going to get. Since announcing his candidacy, he’s done very little campaigning. But Webb, the former Navy secretary and Vietnam veteran, has a very impressive resume that could allow him to go toe-to-toe with the ex-secretary of state on foreign policy. He could criticize Clinton on Syria, Iran and possibly her vote to go into Iraq, which he opposed. As for his strategy: “Eisenhower didn’t yap about D-Day in advance,” a Webb spokesman told Time.
Does tonight make Joe Biden more or less likely to run? The vice president has no public events on his calendar today, but you can bet he’ll be watching the debate from his home at the Naval Observatory. To help gin up excitement, CNN not only announced that Biden pre-qualified for the debate. Even after his team said he wouldn’t attend, CNN made a show of having a sixth podium at the ready in case he changes his mind.
If Clinton does really well, quelling the doubts of some of her anxious supporters, Biden is less likely to jump into the race. If the debate is a jumble, joining the fray will certainly seem more attractive.