Griff the bulldog, Drake University's living, slobbering mascot, is apparently looking forward to his role as a surprise moderator at tonight's second Democratic debate in Iowa. The beloved retired show dog knows a thing or two about discipline, and the university says he'll be bringing some hard-hitting questions to the three remaining candidates in the race on behalf of students at the school.
"The big issues for our students are pretty typical of the ones students are thinking about across the country: social issues, the economy … student debt is on everyone's mind nationally," university spokesman Jared Bernstein said. "I'm sure Griff will address those issues."
While Griff won't actually be moderating anything Saturday — bar perhaps his own special corner of the media tent where he'll be placed during the debate — students at Drake said they hope the real hosts will dig into these issues and more.
"I would love it if the moderators took a serious look at our crime policy," said Brianna Steirer, 21, a senior law and political science major. "Also, we want to see the candidates addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly after what just happened at the University of Missouri," she added, referring to the student and faculty protests over racism that culminated in the resignation of the school's president and chancellor this week.
Steirer added that on Thursday during a break at a major technology conference held at Drake, a coalition of black students and allies stood up and protested in a "respectful and powerful" show of solidarity with their Mizzou compatriots. "This issue is so relevant, and it needs to be addressed by the candidates," she said.
Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the debate would go on despite the attacks by the Islamic State that occurred Friday night in Paris, reportedly saying that "canceling would mean terrorists win."
Since the first Democratic showdown, in Las Vegas last month, three former Democratic nomination hopefuls — Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and Larry Lessig, a Harvard law professor, who wasn't in the debate — have abandoned their long-shot campaigns, while Vice President Joe Biden also disappointed supporters and his early draft super PAC by deciding against a White House run in 2016. The three remaining candidates — Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders — will take the podium at Drake's Sheslow auditorium in Des Moines tonight.
CBS News's John Dickerson, the debate's actual moderator, told the Des Moines Register on Monday that his line of questioning will revolve around the economy, honing in on income inequality and minimum wages — a particularly hot topic this week as fast food workers once again took to the streets in cities nationwide and launched a hunger strike to call for a $15 wage floor.
On Tuesday, Sanders joined some of those strikers in Washington, DC, resounding recognizable stump speech remarks central to the self-described Democratic Socialist's campaign platform, which has largely centered on correcting economic inequality and bumping billionaires from their perch.
The protests ramped up on Friday, when Walmart workers announced a series of planned actions and boycotts leading up to Black Friday in a letter to Clinton, O'Malley, and Sanders.
"When you take the stage on Saturday night we respectfully ask that you speak to and stand up for us, the hundreds of thousands of Associates that work at Walmart, who can barely afford to put food on our tables or provide for our families," they wrote. "This isn't right and we need a President who will champion our cause."
Meanwhile, women and men were uring Dickerson and his co-hosts to bring up the issue of a #LadyTax — a term commonly attached to the sales taxes imposed on tampons and other feminine hygiene products. This week the term was appropriated by advocacy group Make It Work, which redefined it as America's persisting gender pay gap.
"Women are paid on average 79 cents for every dollar a man earns — even less for women of color," said Tracy Sturdivant, Make It Work's co-founder and executive director. "That's $11,000 a year women are taxed because they are not men."
Sturdivant said that at Saturday's debate, minimum wage earners — two-thirds of whom are women — will be listening for the candidates to propose practicable policies to abridge the wage disparity, rather than "just paying lip service."
"All of the candidates have talked about the need to enact policies to close the pay gap, but we're interested in more specifics, the actual policy plans and solutions they will put in place to ensure working women can make ends meet for their families and concrete steps to strengthen the economy," she said.
While income inequality is a topic firmly lying within Sanders's comfort zone, Clinton and O'Malley have also staked policy proposals in this area. O'Malley, like Sanders, has backed a $15 minimum wage and Wall Street reform, including the reenactment of the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial and investment banking. Meanwhile, Clinton has vowed to protect bargaining rights and raise wages to $12 an hour.
A CBS News/New York Times national survey released on Thursday shows that Clinton maintains a lead in the polls among Democrats, 55 percent of whom expressed support for Clinton over Sanders, who has 33 percent backing. O'Malley has 5 percent according to the same poll.
Despite these numbers, Steirer said there has been a "pretty good divide of support for Democratic candidates on campus," mainly because of a high level of grassroots organizing and exposure students have had to all three campaigns in the crucial state of Iowa.
"There are a lot of Hillary supporters because her group has been very active in Iowa — even before she announced," she said. "Bernie Sanders is also getting a lot of students excited, but the most surprising development is how active the O'Malley campaign is on campus. We have students who absolutely love the man. He may not be a household name nationally, but his base in Iowa is strong."
Steirer, who will be attending on a special CBS panel tonight, said she will probably try and sneak over to a Sanders debate watch party later with other supporters.
"I would love more than anything to see a woman in the oval office, but there are issues that affect women that aren't necessarily women's issues," she said. "Hillary as a figurehead for women is influential, but Bernie will stand against income inequality and mass incarceration. He's always working for people who have been shut out of the political process."
CBS-hosted standoff begins at 9pm ET Saturday. Stream it live here.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields