Ahead of the first Democratic presidential debate, which will be hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Oct. 13 at 8:30 p.m. EST, all eyes are on the two titans battling it out for the nomination — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Although Clinton was, for a few months, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party, her campaign has faltered in the wake of Sanders’ stunning rise in popularity. Although Sanders has rallied more than 100,000 people to his appearances nationwide, outstripping Barack Obama’s 2008 performance, according to The Washington Post, the debate will be the first time many mainstream voters will be introduced to Sanders as a serious candidate — not just a socialist loudly proclaiming the widely felt discontentment with American politics.
Although Clinton is still generally more popular than Sanders, her poll numbers have been dropping while Sanders’ have been rising nationally, according to data provided by RealClear Politics, a polling service created by NBC and The Wall Street Journal. But Sanders has outmatched Clinton as well as Republican candidates in several states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are considered battleground states, NBC reported.
Despite Clinton’s dominance, she has consistently changed her platforms to align more closely with those of Sanders — which could ultimately give him the advantage by making her look like a weaker leader. Clinton initially supported the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership, which Sanders has always opposed, she pulled a sharp U-turn on her stance only days before the debate.
Similarly, Sanders has won over the support of many involved in movements such as Black Lives Matter, going so far as to develop platform on social and racial justice, Clinton’s response has been slower and more muted.
It may seem like Sanders is poised to at least fluster Clinton tonight, but he’s not invulnerable. Although Sanders has been involved in politics in both his home state and on Capitol Hill since the 1990s, Clinton has a lot more foreign policy experience, which could be a blight on Sanders’ campaign given the rise of Islamic State group, turmoil in foreign markets as China opens its economy and increasing tensions with Russia.
Sanders’ reputation as a progressive could also be tarnished if and when the issue of gun control is raised. In recent weeks, there have been three fatal shootings on college campuses, including one at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, which left 10 people, including the alleged shooter, dead.
Sanders has a decidedly moderate take on gun control and his home state has few restrictions on firearms, CNN reported. Although he supported expanding background checks in 2013, Clinton and other democratic rivals who will take the stage tonight, such as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have a much stronger record on gun control, Vox reported. In recent weeks, Sanders’ has softened his approach.
"The people in my state understand — I think pretty clearly — that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they're used by kids in gangs killing other kids, or people shooting at police officers," Sanders told CNN's Jake Tapper. "We need a sensible debate about gun control which overcomes the cultural divide that exists in this country, and I think I can play an important role in this.”
Sanders’ greatest enemy at this debate could be himself. Many potential voters, including crucial groups like undecided independents, are put off by Sanders’ pronouncement that he’s a democratic socialist. For many, the S-word brings up frightening notions of being denied personal or economic freedom.
“Does anyone here think I’m a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government? That I want all of you to be wearing similar colored pajamas?” Sanders recently joked with students at New Hampshire's Saint Anselm College, The Washington Post reported.
Despite Sanders’ rise, this debate will be a decisive moment for his campaign, though it remains to be seen if his performance will make others ‘feel the Bern’ or quell the passion of his supporters.