In comparison to the first two Republican presidential candidate showdowns, the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 is not being touted as especially exciting. Donald Trump, the candidate who has been sucking up the oxygen in the Republican field, has already predicted the Las Vegas debate will be “boring.”
While the debate is unlikely to have the same dramatic fireworks of the Republican contests, the stakes are real for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is leading the field by a wide margin, but passion for her has waned, leaving her vulnerable to losing the narrative to a more liberal candidate who voters view as more authentic.
Joining Clinton at the debate will be Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The latter three candidates barely even make a blip in the national consciousness, according to a new CBS poll. And while Clinton has much to lose, Sanders has a lot to gain.
While the debate hosts have set aside a podium for Vice President Joe Biden, it is unclear whether or not he will announce a campaign this election cycle. Clinton, polling at 46 percent, only has to stand her ground to emerge the winner in the debate. But she is going to have a big target on her back.
The Democratic front-runner has been considered the inevitable nominee for years, maybe even since her defeat by Barack Obama in the 2008 primary. The controversy of the Benghazi terror attack that happened during her leadership of the State Department and her scandalous use of a private email server have not derailed her status as the party favorite but they have hurt her.
Clinton’s wide lead has dropped since the summer, The Huffington Post reports. During the debate, her status as the inevitable nominee will be tested and her fellow candidates will all be trying to take her down. While it is a statistical impossibility for O’Malley, Webb or Chafee to leapfrog to first place after the debate, they will each have the opportunity to assert themselves into a race that has been dominated by Clinton.
The candidate that poses the biggest threat to Clinton will be Sanders. Running as an openly democratic socialist, Sanders has defied all expectations by not only netting 27 percent in the latest CBS poll, but raising more than $40 million in campaign funds without using the political action committees known as super PACs. The media has been slow to acknowledge the appeal Sanders holds for Democratic voters, but the debate could present a huge shift in the narrative.
The CBS poll found 44 percent of voters have yet to form an opinion on Sanders. If he is able to convince audiences his ideas are more innovative than radical, he could suddenly become a more attractive candidate for the general election.
When it comes to the issues, Clinton must assert herself as a strong champion for liberal ideas. Economic policy is likely to be a huge talking point at the debate and this is where Sanders could gain the edge. While Trump has tapped into the Republican voters’ exasperation with insider politics and illegal immigration, Sanders can gain traction among Democratic voters with his strong opposition to the big money in politics and the shrinking of the middle class. The policies that Clinton has put forward are, in contrast, much softer on Wall Street and big banking, The Washington Times reports.
Clinton can still outshine Sanders’ liberal bona fides on social issues. Clinton is much more insistent on gun legislation than Sanders, CNN reports. She has quietly been shaping policies to address the needs of Latinos, African-Americans and women. If she wants to come out strong at the debate, she will need to be touting her support for these demographics.
Sanders has resisted attacking Clinton throughout his campaign, a trend that will likely continue into the debate. If O’Malley, Webb and Chafee each take turns trying to dislodge Clinton’s front-runner status, then they may collectively do Sanders’ work for him.
Clinton is unlikely to make any more apologies for Benghazi or her emails, but she has been in politics long enough to have a record the other candidates will attack. She is perceived as the most electable among Democratic voters, but in a general election that could see the Republican party nominating a candidate as unorthodox as Donald Trump, liberals may decide to push the boundaries as well.
If Clinton doesn’t inspire passion with debate viewers, Sanders could seize the momentum and become more than just an upstart.