The two Democratic candidates are in a real race now, and they won't avoid attacking each other in Thursday's Democratic debate.
Thursday's Democratic debate will be held at the Helen Bader Concert Hall at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and broadcast on PBS. That makes it sound like a polite affair, but what we're likely going to get is the most impressive display of old white people saying go fuck yourself in coded language since every Maggie Smith appearance in Downton Abbey.
In October, when the first Democratic debate aired on CNN, there were five candidates onstage and not much in the way of personal attacks—no one bothered to insult Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders didn't go after one another either. But now, after Sanders basically tied Clinton at the Iowa caucuses and thumped her in New Hampshire, it's getting heated. In the last debate, before the New Hampshire primaries, Sanders bashed Clinton for not being left wing enough, saying, "I don't know any progressive who has a Super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street," and since then Clinton allies have accused Sanders of not fighting on behalf of black people throughout his career. (Sanders seems to be working to court black voters; he met with Al Sharpton in Harlem and prominent African-Americans from Harry Belafonte to Ta-Nehisi Coates have endorsed the Vermont senator.)
The conventional wisdom is that before New Hampshire, Sanders's campaign was a bit of a lost cause—romantic, crusading, righteous in a way, but without a chance of the candidate actually becoming president. Now that he's beaten Clinton in a state and raising money at an impressive clip, it's clear that he's no more of a sideshow candidate than Donald Trump. That's led to an uptick in attacks on him both from Clinton and Republicans—Trump himself is now bragging about how he'd beat Sanders, and the New York Post ran a long piece accusing him of being a "diehard communist."
Clinton has an edge in the national polls and is leading by a wide margin in South Carolina and Nevada, the next states to vote on the nominees, but there's been a lot of soul-searching at her campaign headquarters after the primary, according to The New York Times. Obviously, Sanders's anti-establishment message is appealing to voters who feel like they're being screwed over and Clinton, as a former first lady and secretary of state, can't claim to have that same kind of anger at the status quo—she is the status quo. The trick for her will be to reassure progressives that she shares their values and isn't a representative of the DC machine they hate. Lena Dunham isn't going to show up on Thursday night to lend Clinton cred, either.
Expect Clinton to be asked about those times she got paid to tell Goldman Sachs how great it was, and about Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright's remarks about how all women need to back her because she too is a woman. Both present tricky needles for her to thread—she'll have to avoid seeming pro–big bank and find a way to appeal to young women without overtly calling Sanders anti-feminist.
Sanders will probably be asked about how his brand of liberalism helps minorities, and you can expect a response that references the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a town with a large black population. Sanders also co-authored a letter released Thursday that criticizes the Obama administration for not being progressive enough on immigration, which he'll likely bring up.
The final topic debate moderators Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will undoubtedly touch on is foreign policy, where Sanders doesn't have much experience and hasn't staked out many concrete positions. He'd obviously prefer to be talking income inequality and college debt than ISIS and North Korea, but in a long campaign like this, every single issue is up for grabs—and this is going to be a long campaign.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.