Tonight America will get its first real look at the major contenders for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Far from being too early or irrelevant, I believe the stakes tonight are high for those at the top and bottom of the draw.

For starters, both Sens. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMaxine Waters is joking about 2020 — but not about Trump How Florida explains our polarized politics Overnight Regulation: Trump administration reveals first regulatory agenda | GOP lawmakers introduce measures to repeal arbitration rule | Exxon gets M fine for sanctions violation MORE (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) have the most to gain and the most to lose. For Clinton, long dogged by high disapproval ratings, she can utilize her time on the stage tonight to present a more likable and personable candidate than many have seen thus far. A likable Clinton will help put distance between herself and Obama as the frontrunner at this stage. Yet Clinton also runs the risk of being attacked by some of the lesser-known and lower-polling candidates — attacks that she should be careful not to respond to in a shrill manner that could reinforce negative impressions held about her. She’ll have a delicate tightrope to walk, indeed.

As for Obama, he has the opportunity to expand upon his vision while giving the American people their first opportunity to hear from him in more than 15-second sound bites or glowing magazine covers. People could react quite well to Obama if he presents an intelligent and optimistic platform as to what he would do if he were elected president. At the same time, Obama has been quite light on substance on the campaign trail thus far. The junior senator from Illinois could also alienate potential voters with his positions and views because thus far, he hasn’t had to say much in concrete form as far as what he would actually do if he were elected president. All things being equal, I predict Obama will outshine Clinton and be deemed the winner between the two frontrunners.

As for the rest, I predict former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will do quite well tonight. Articulate and eloquent debaters, they will keep things interesting while trying to take some of the energy and oxygen away from the two frontrunners.

As for the rest (Kucinich, Dodd, Biden, etc.), prepare for pandering to the far-left Moveon.org crowd while trying to grab headlines by attacking the frontrunners. Get your popcorn ready — tonight’s debate should be rather interesting.