5 things to watch for in Thursday's Dem debate
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Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Briahna Joy Gray says Chris Cuomo will return to CNN following scandal MORE enters Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn needing a pivotal moment to turn the tide against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE in New York, where polls suggest he’s headed for a loss on Tuesday.

Sanders has won eight of the last nine contests but has not made much of a dent in Clinton’s delegate lead and can’t afford a loss in New York’s primary.

Here are five things to watch for in Thursday’s debate: 


How hard will the two go after each other?


The past week has been one of the most contentious stretches on the campaign trail for Democrats.

Tensions boiled over when Sanders cast Clinton as unqualified to serve as president, specifically targeting her vote in favor of the Iraq War, her support of free trade agreements and her supporting super-PAC, which raises money, in part, from Wall Street sources.

That sparked a war of words. Sanders’s campaign maintained a defiant tone and promised to strike back against what it called repeated slights by Clinton. Her staff bashed Sanders’s comments as a “new low,” and a number of Democrats, including President Obama, came to her defense.

That issue died down once Sanders backtracked — saying “of course” she’s qualified — but few expect that to be his last critique.

“I expect these tensions to remain high and remain high all the way through California,” David Birdsell, a debate expert and professor at New York’s Baruch College, told The Hill. California holds its primary in early June. 

“Sanders is certainly behaving like a person who believes he has been wounded and wounded unfairly by Clinton campaign officials questioning his bona fides.”

Clinton’s response to the feud has been to stay out of it personally while allowing her campaign staff to push back, but she has not been shy on hitting Sanders on a variety of issues, including gun control and immigration.

New York, the state she represented in the Senate, is a must-win for her coming off a streak of Sanders victories. A decisive win there would allow her to put the Vermont senator behind her and start concentrating on the general election. 


How hard will the candidates take their push for minority voters?

Clinton has won more support from minority voters throughout the campaign, a trend that appears to be continuing in New York. 

But Sanders has cut into her once-overwhelming leads and performs substantially better with minorities in Northern states.

The rising tension between the candidates comes alongside an effort by each side to diminish the other’s record on issues important to minority voters.

The Clinton camp has highlighted Sanders’s gun control policy, calling it lax and tying it to gun violence that’s plagued New York’s minority communities, and has accused him of failing to stand by Hispanics by voting against immigration reform in 2007.

For its part, Sanders’s campaign held a press call with immigration activists on Tuesday that mentioned Clinton’s previous push against New York  granting undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses as proof that she has abandoned the Hispanic population in the past.

One stumbling block for Clinton could be her husband’s recent dust-up with protesters that led him to defend his controversial 1994 crime law. Critics blame the law for further expanding the prison population and disproportionately targeting minority communities.

The minority vote represented about 30 percent of the New York Democratic primary electorate in 2008, so strong efforts to win over those voters could help either cushion Clinton’s lead or provide Sanders a chance to execute a coup.


Will attacks on high-profile issues land?

Both candidates have stumbled recently on major issues that resonate with a significant portion of the New York Democratic electorate, creating opportunities for new attacks. 

For Sanders, that opening comes with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial gas drilling technique that is a big issue with progressive New Yorkers.

“The locus of Sanders’s support is going to be everyone who voted for Zephyr Teachout in the last gubernatorial
campaign, and the big issues at that point were corruption in Albany and fracking,” Birdsell said of the progressive Democrat who lost the 2014 Democratic primary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“You could raise concerns about Clinton’s environmental bona fides; you could, in the context of raising those concerns, re-emphasize her tight relationships with major corporations.”

The corporate angle plays right into Sanders’s message, and so does Clinton’s recent confrontation with environmental activists on donations from employees of fossil fuel companies. So Sanders has pushed for a nationwide fracking ban, touting that in ads as an implicit contrast with Clinton.

But Clinton has her own favorable issue: Israel. Jews made up 16 percent of the state’s Democratic primary electorate during the 2013 mayoral primary, according to New York Times exit polls, and a handful of Jewish groups have criticized Sanders for his recent statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said that Sanders, who is Jewish, accused Israel of “blood libel” for criticizing Israel’s actions in the 2014 conflict in Gaza as heavy-handed and confusing the numbers of Gazans killed. He said he believed the number was over 10,000. United Nations data shows about 1,500 civilians were killed, though Israel has argued that number is lower. In a statement, Sanders attributed the incorrect figure to conflating the death toll with casualties. 

Clinton has long touted her relationship with Israel, all but ensuring that the issue comes into play as another attack on his foreign policy grasp.


Will Clinton go after Sanders for trying to woo superdelegates?

It’s a reality: The delegate math looks grim for Sanders. Down more than 250 pledged delegates and hundreds more superdelegates, Sanders’s best chance at victory may be wooing party leaders with the freedom to choose sides.

Initially, Sanders and his supporters called on superdelegates in states he won to vote with the voters.

But as Clinton continues to hold a delegate lead, Sanders has changed his tune and now wants any or all superdelegates to back him because he believes he’d fare better in a general election.

That flip hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Clinton campaign, with her national press secretary, Brian Fallon, arguing that Sanders is promoting “rigging the system” by flipping the election, despite Clinton winning the popular vote and leading in pledged delegates.

While Sanders may look to appeal to the superdelegates once again during the debate, Clinton could ardently push back by pointing to the scoreboard. That said, it’s tricky ground for Clinton, too, because her campaign made a similar general election argument back in 2008.


Can Sanders recover from the New York Daily News interview that prompted questions about his grasp of fiscal issues?

Sanders’s recent Daily News interview set off accusations that he doesn’t fully understand his call to break up the big banks, a central piece of his economic policy. Sanders struggled with repeated pushes for specifics in the interview.

The Clinton campaign appears to think those comments can hurt him — Clinton has referenced it both in interviews and on the stump, while her campaign sent out the newspaper’s entire transcript of the interview in the hopes of driving the knife deeper.

To rub it in Thursday night, she can point to her endorsement Tuesday from the Daily News, which bluntly said Sanders “proved utterly unprepared for the Oval Office while confirming that the central thrusts of his campaign are politically impossible.”

Look for Clinton to continue to exploit the issue to cast doubt on his grasp of economic policy and chip away at Sanders’s central issue.