When Hillary Clinton takes the stage at the first Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night, it won’t be the coronation her campaign hoped for earlier this year. With her claim to the throne undermined by a slow-burning e-mail scandal, the proper line of succession is in doubt and the pretenders are sharpening their swords.
Whether those swords will draw blood remains an open question. Though Clinton’s dominant lead has shriveled, she remains the Democratic front-runner and commands the loyalty of her party’s elite. The insurgent who represents the would-be queen’s biggest threat, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, continues to exercise extreme caution in criticizing her directly. And looming over all is the specter of a possible Joe Biden campaign, which would fundamentally transform the race in ways no one can accurately predict.
Discretion may for once prove the better part of valor in Las Vegas.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for in Tuesday’s Sin City face-off:
Will Sanders Go Negative on Clinton?
Until Biden enters the fray, the most important fight in the Democratic campaign is still between Clinton and Sanders. The Vermont senator benefited immensely from the former secretary of state’s summer e-mail troubles, pulling ahead of her in New Hampshire and nipping at her heels in Iowa. And he did it without directly attacking Clinton for her perceived untrustworthiness — a tactic Democratic strategists say he should continue.
“I think Bernie Sanders has emerged because he has a very strong, positive message that resonates with voters,” says Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist with extensive experience on presidential campaigns. He compares Sanders’s rise to Obama’s successful anti-Clinton campaign in 2008. “Don’t forget the way Obama emerged was with a very strong, positive message,” he says. “Yes, it had elements of contrast — ‘conviction, not triangulation’ — and people knew what he was talking about. But it was never an explicit attack on her.”
Though he’s certainly a capable attack dog, Sanders seems likely to stick to his own platform, letting his policies paint the desired contrast with Clinton. “I expect Senator Sanders to get to the left of Secretary Clinton to the fullest extent possible,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Nevada senator Harry Reid. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership [trade deal], in particular, will allow him to question some of her basic positions.” (Though Clinton came out in opposition against the trade deal last week, she supported its various formulations throughout her time as secretary of state and well into 2014.)
How Will Clinton Respond?
Just because it’s seemingly to Sanders’s advantage to pull his punches doesn’t mean Clinton will return the favor. The waning Democratic front-runner mentions Sanders so infrequently on the campaign trail that it sometimes seems she’s unaware of his existence altogether. But in order to stanch the bleeding in Iowa and New Hampshire, some Democratic observers think Clinton needs to get tough against the burgeoning insurgency to her left. “I’d hope to see an aggressive attempt by her to try and make the case that she’s the best one for the Democratic party,” says Manley, who supports Clinton. “I don’t think she should make it personal, but she is going to have to press Senator Sanders on some of the different issues.” In the wake of the Oregon school shooting earlier this month, Clinton may challenge Sanders’s relatively moderate position on gun control. But as a self-professed “democratic socialist,” Sanders may also be vulnerable to an examination of his overall electability.
‘For Clinton and Sanders, protecting the ball is probably more in order. They’ll play a lot more defense than offense.’
Others think Clinton will play it safe in the first debate, in part because her campaign isn’t particularly concerned by Sanders. “I’m not sure that they believe they’re really bleeding that badly,” says Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. He thinks Clinton could afford to lose Iowa and New Hampshire to Sanders, making up the difference with her campaign’s strong ground game in states such as South Carolina and Nevada, where Sanders has little support. “For Clinton and Sanders, protecting the ball is probably more in order,” he says. “They’ll play a lot more defense than offense.”
Will There Be Fireworks from Martin O’Malley and the Other Second-Tier Candidates?
While Clinton and Sanders tread cautiously, the other three candidates onstage — ex-Virginia senator Jim Webb, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, and ex–Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — will be desperate to make an impression on a Democratic electorate that seems largely oblivious to their campaigns. To do so, they’ll need some sharp elbows. “I would expect them to try to punch up a bit,” says Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
That’s particularly true of O’Malley, who despite anemic poll numbers has made waves in the press for his frequent attacks on Clinton and Democratic party leaders. He’s hit Clinton for flip-flopping on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and accused her of tarnishing the entire Democratic field with her e-mail scandal. “If anyone is going to try to score a punch, O’Malley is the one,” says Simmons.
Many strategists expect that hard line from O’Malley because, with support hovering at around 1 percent, he’s got almost nothing to lose. “It may be a long shot for him to do it,” says Shrum. “But it’s probably his best chance to have his breakout moment — his Fiorina moment.”
E-mails? What E-mails?
Though it dominates press coverage of the Clinton campaign, Clinton’s e-mail scandal may not be a hot topic Tuesday night. Clinton’s rivals are likely wary of opening up that wound while trying to court the Democratic base, which remains largely skeptical that the former secretary of state did anything wrong.
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“We’re still in the Democratic nominating period,” says Thornell. “My hunch is what the moderators will want to do is ask those questions that Democratic voters care most about. And right now, as far as Democrats go, the e-mail scandal, none of that stuff is resonating for them. What they’re going to want to hear these candidates talk about are their ideas to address income inequality, to improve race relations in the country.”
That doesn’t mean Clinton’s scandals won’t be a factor. Polls show that up to a third of Democratic voters are concerned by the ongoing saga, and some strategists believe Clinton will have to speak to them before the evening’s through. If she does, it will likely be in response to the moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I think something interesting is what role the moderator will play in asking Clinton tough questions, for example about the TPP or her e-mails, so that the other candidates don’t feel the need to do that,” says Shrum.
There may not be much said about the other elephant in the room, either. Though Biden is expected to announce his decision on a White House run this week — perhaps as soon as the morning after the debates — those onstage will have every incentive to avoid him at all costs.
“I think it would be stupid to go on the attack against someone when you don’t know if they’re running,” says Shrum. Handley agrees, suggesting that the candidates “should focus on the issue at hand, engage in a robust debate with each other, and leave what they can’t handle for another time.”
But Biden’s presence — or, more accurately, his absence — will still be felt. Though he’s not yet an official candidate, he polls just a few points behind Sanders — nearly one in five Democrats support him nationally. That’s something Clinton, in particular, will have trouble explaining should Cooper choose to bring it up.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.