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What to Look for in Tonight's Democratic Debate from Clinton, Sanders, and the Rest

Here's a rundown of the individuals, issues, and dynamics at play as the Democratic presidential candidates get the first of six chances to distinguish themselves alongside their rivals on national television.

by Liz Fields
Oct 13 2015, 11:20am

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty

You could be forgiven for thinking that there are only two candidates vying to be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, given the media's single-minded focus on the top contenders. But while the field isn't nearly as crowded as the Republican primary, others will be taking the podium alongside Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the first Democratic debate tonight — and they might even land a few surprising uppercuts.

Ahead of the highly anticipated sparring match hosted by CNN that's set to kick off in Las Vegas's Wynn Hotel at 8:30 PM ET (5:30 PM PT) — billboards outside of the hotel even make the debaters look like prizefighters — here's our rundown of the various personalities and issues involved. Don't forget to follow the VICE News live blog for minute-to-minute coverage, analysis, and commentary during the debate.

Hillary Clinton

Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might be ahead in the polls, but even her most ardent backers know that her image has taken a beating lately. Recent surveys indicate that more than half of Americans view her unfavorably, and the ongoing controversy of her use of a private email server for government business, the relentless Benghazi probe in the House of Representatives, and her perceived "stiffness" on the stump haven't exactly helped her cause.

"She came out of the box strong and then she had a rough summer," said Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and a former senior spokesperson for her ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign. "Her biggest challenge right now is that people don't feel they can connect with her. They don't know if they can trust her, they're unsure she's going to be their champion."

But Elleithee noted that he's seen a concerted "course correction" from the campaign over recent weeks. Since being spurned by social media over her stated plans to be more spontaneous, the 67-year-old has showed that she is capable of shaking her likability woes — or at least of showing a more humorous self-effacing side — in several public appearances, including nailing a cameo as Val the bartender in a recent SNL skit.

"That's what she needs to do more of — she just needs to become more of a real person," Elleithee said. "This is a populism election. It's about who's fighting for me and who's looking out for me, so income inequality was always going to be one of the issues."

Clinton's campaign, sensing Bernie Sanders's momentum in the polls, moved in on the Vermont senator's policy niche in this area last week. It proposed a set of Wall Street reforms that would, among other things, tighten rules on hedge funds, impose a tax on high-frequency trading, and grant regulators more authority to carve up banks that are too-big-to-fail if their operations become too risky. But her plan stops well short of restoring Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated investment banking from commercial banking, which Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have championed.

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"There's no question that Clinton's campaign has reacted to Sanders's presence in the field and the poll response and the small donor response and the turnout response at rallies," said Richard Parker, an economist and public policy lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "She's trying to catch up with Sanders on a number of fronts — minimum wage is one of them, TPP is another," he added, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal that the Obama administration negotiated with 11 Pacific Rim nations. Clinton supported the negotiations while serving as Barack Obama's secretary of state, but declared her opposition to it as a presidential hopeful after the deal was announced last week.

"I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made," she said in a statement. "But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it."

One area Clinton has set herself apart from Sanders is her support for gun control — an issue thrown back in the spotlight after a string of gun massacres, including two school shootings last week. This month, Clinton unveiled a new package of gun control measures, including universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and holding manufacturers and retailers accountable for gun crimes.

In doing so, she pitted herself against the powerful National Rifle Association — a move that many politicians, including Sanders, who hails from a largely rural and pro-gun state, have shied away from for fear of pissing off gun owners. Sanders has a knotty record on gun control, having voted as a House representative against the 1993 Brady Bill that mandated federal background checks on gun purchasers and then voting as a US senator to pass a law in 2005 protecting manufacturers from lawsuits filed by victims of gun violence.

Though he has lately signaled support for "common sense gun reform," tonight's audience will be watching to see if Clinton tries scoring points against him on this issue.

Bernie Sanders

Photo by Michael Dwyer/AP

The 74-year-old left-leaning senator from Vermont blazed into the political mainstream earlier this year when he became to first to challenge what many assumed would be a Clinton cakewalk to the nomination. What initially seemed a fanciful stab on his part at influencing the policy discussion has quickly developed into a serious candidacy sustained by fervent grassroots support. He's also managed to pick up a few of his rival's fans along the way, giving Clinton aides a few gray hairs in the process.

Sanders's campaign financing has so far overwhelmingly drawn on small donations from people who have turned out in the tens of thousands to see him speak. He hit a milestone last month when his campaign announced that he was the first candidate in 2016 to receive a million online contributions, reaching that mark earlier than Obama did in either of his presidential runs.

Much of tonight's debate is expected to focus on economic issues — inequality being the polestar of Sanders's campaign. While the self-identified democratic socialist has built a strong connection to his largely white, liberal fan base, breaking out beyond the limits of this crowd has been an uphill battle for Sanders, who hails from one of the whitest and most liberal states in the country.

"He has focused on issues of class and economic distribution that have at times — particularly over the Black Lives Matter question — gotten him in some trouble with communities within the Democratic Party, because he doesn't nuance the class discussion in terms of gender and identity qualification," said Parker.

When Black Lives Matter activists challenged Sanders to "say her name" — referring to Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in police custody earlier this year — at a progressive conference in July, his dismissive response frustrated many. Since then, he's taken up racial inequality with renewed vigor, including by holding meetings with key BLM activists and promoting ways to tackle criminal justice reform, police brutality, and institutional racism. He's expected to continue this effort in the context of tonight's debate, which will be the first sustained look that many in the country will have of him.

Related: Bernie Sanders Has a Ballsy Plan to Get Rid of Private Prisons — But Will It Work?

Elleithee, who is also a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), said that Sanders's "connectivity problems with some minority groups" speaks to a broader issue within the Democratic Party, which "tends to be dominated by Hispanics, African-Americans, young voters, and women."

"It is too often seen as a coalition party that is speaking to a bunch of disparate groups as opposed to a unifying party," he added. "The candidate who's going to win is one who can transcend all those groups and can actually tie them all together."

Sanders has done without the usual mock debate sessions that candidates use to prepare for contests like tonight's, and is expected to laser in on policy differences between him and Clinton rather than make potshots or deliver canned sound bites. Sparing his fellow frontrunner the personal attacks that can be typical of primary debates, we'll be watching for him to lay into billionaires instead. It will be interesting to see if the usually gruff Sanders's willingness to play nice leaves him open to counterattack.

Martin O'Malley

Photo by Jim Mone/AP

There is nobody for whom the stakes are higher for than Martin O'Malley, the 52-year-old former Maryland governor, Baltimore mayor, and Celtic folk-rocker, who's been "completely marginalized in this campaign," said Elleithee.

"The only issue he has gotten any traction on or attention for is complaining about the number of debates," he added.

Elleithee suspects that O'Malley's sputtering campaign is due for a "Scott Walker moment," referring to the Wisconsin's governor's ignominious early dropout from the race last month after failing to distinguish himself among a rowdy field of GOP contenders.

O'Malley's efforts to stand out in recent weeks have hinged on repeated calls for the DNC to expand the six debates announced for the party's candidates. He has argued that the GOP's program, which has already featured two debates in the last two months, has helped lesser-known Republican candidates like Carly Fiorina burst into the national conscious and potentially win access to deep pockets. He's even gone so far as to upbraid the DNC program as "rigged" in Clinton's favor.

He and his operatives are understandably super eager for him to take the stage tonight at the inaugural debate, for which he's been prepping by planking while reading an iPad.

"We see the first debate as an opportunity for him to make his case," said Haley Morris, O'Malley's national press secretary. "He'll be able to really introduce himself, what he was able to do as governor," and his "progressive principles."

Because the DNC has given no indication that it is considering expanding its debate schedule, O'Malley needs to cram in months of policy prep in whatever airtime he's afforded. According to his campaign, this includes scoring points on issues like gun control, collective bargaining, making the economy fairer and more competitive, reining in Wall Street, fixing America's criminal justice system, and immigration.

Elleithee said that it's crucial for O'Malley to break through in tonight's debate, "or else he'll have a really hard time keeping the lights on at headquarters." He added that he'll be carefully watching to see if the candidate comes in as a "bomb thrower" or a "happy warrior."

"Does he come in as the 'burn the house down' kind of candidate trying to take out Bernie or Hillary?" he asked. "Or does he try to find a way to make a compelling case to make for himself? If he comes in as a bomb thrower, I actually think he's done."

Whatever the case, expect O'Malley to come out swinging.

Jim Webb

Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

Maybe you haven't heard much about Jim Webb, the 69-year-old former Virginia senator who has a resume more diverse than a Hollywood extra. The Emmy award-winning journalist, best-selling writer, filmmaker, and former Colbert Show-frequenter might seem to be a jack-of-all-trades, but he's perhaps best known as a decorated military guy, having served in Vietnam and in a number of top military roles, including as secretary of the Navy under Republican President Ronald Reagan.

As a staunch critic of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, Webb is expected to turn up the heat tonight on Clinton, especially for her vote to authorize military action in 2002 and her push as secretary of state for the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. In April, he took a swipe at more than 20 years of Clinton foreign policy when he said that America has lacked a "clear strategic doctrine" since her husband, Bill, took office.

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Michael Pregent, a former intelligence adviser to General David Petraeus and an Iraq veteran, said that one policy where Webb has differentiated himself from other candidates is in his dissenting opinion on the Iran nuclear deal.

"He's the only candidate to come out against it," said Pregent, who is also the executive director of a group called Veterans Against the Deal. While a firm stance on the Iran deal "may not necessarily help him with Democratic voters," he noted, "it will help him with independents."

Clinton "had voiced some strong words on the Iran deal, but ultimately supported it," he added. "Whether it's even brought up tonight is another question."

Lincoln Chafee

Photo by Jim Mone/AP

If you've recently typed "Who is Lincoln Chafee?" into Google, you're not alone. The 62-year-old former senator and Rhode Island governor has been a top trending query in the lead-up to the first Democratic debate. "What are Lincoln Chafee's beliefs?" and "Is Lincoln Chafee a Democrat?" are other top searches.

To the latter question, the answer is, "Yes, but not always." Born to a family of Republican legislators, Chafee served as a Republican mayor and senator before leaving the party in 2007 and running as an independent governor in 2010. It was actually O'Malley, then the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, who convinced Chaffee to switch to the Democratic camp in 2013.

As a Republican, Chafee clashed with his fellow GOPers on a range of issues, including gay marriage, abortion, the minimum wage, and the death penalty. He was also notably the lone Republican to vote against the Iraq war resolution in 2002. Being the odd kid out, Chafee was sometimes called "the missing Linc" by fellow Republicans.

Elleithee said that this debate isn't likely to increase excitement for Webb and Chafee, who are "not real players in this campaign."

"They're going to come into this debate with things that they want to say, say them, and then they will go back out and people will once again forget they're there," he said of the two candidates. "They don't have money, they don't have infrastructure, they're not going to be the nominee. The notion that they're going to use this debate as a way to break into the top tier of candidates is just wishful thinking from the few supporters that they have."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields