Showtime in Vegas: Five things to watch for at tonight’s Democratic debate

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LAS VEGAS —  It’s showtime for Democrats.

After two Republican debates in which businessman Donald Trump commanded much of the attention, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the rest of the Democratic field will take to the stage Tuesday night in a Las Vegas casino for a two-hour encounter.

{mosads}The clash has received fight-style billing from CNN, which will broadcast the event.

Here are five key things to watch.

Does Clinton go for the Bern? 

Clinton and Sanders have dominated the Democratic contest so far and will be the main protagonists in Las Vegas. 

Sanders has shocked much of the political world by emerging as a real rival to Clinton, but Tuesday’s debate will be the first time the two former Senate colleagues will meet on stage.

Don’t expect a ton of fireworks, observers say.

Sanders has repeatedly said he won’t engage in personal attacks on Clinton, and she also isn’t expected to hit Sanders hard, insiders say.

“She has more to lose than to gain by attacking him,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

By taking on Sanders head-on, Clinton risks antagonizing the liberals who have backed the Vermont Independent.

Clinton is courting those liberals hard, including through her newly-declared opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

Clinton is known as a decent debater. Behind the scenes, she’s been studying briefing books for days and working aides, including her longtime policy staffer, Jake Sullivan.

Bigger goals for Clinton on Tuesday night include defining her campaign and showing Democratic voters why they should pick her.

“People know she’s smart and capable, but what they’re unsure of is whether or not she’s relatable enough,” said one former official who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “I think her main goal is to prove that she’s authentic and likable.”

That means Clinton will work to emulate the same tone she has taken on the campaign trail so far, in which she’s largely ignored Sanders, not assailed him.

How much will Clinton’s emails come up?

Clinton’s campaign has struggled for much of the year as it has dealt with the controversy surrounding the candidate’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.

Republicans have hammered Clinton over the issue, but her Democratic rivals could face some risks in bringing it up — particularly in front of a partisan crowd.

Sanders appears unlikely to raise the topic given his pledges to abjure personal attacks. But former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is looking for ways to stand out, could take a different tack.

He’s raised the subject in the past — and he has nothing to lose, since he is currently commanding the support of less than one percent of Democrats nationwide, according to the RealClearPolitics average. 

Last month, O’Malley said there are “legitimate questions” that Clinton needed to answer.

“That’s why we need debates,” O’Malley went on to say. “Otherwise our party is being defined by Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.”

You can also bet that O’Malley will bring up the subject of more debates, a growing source of tension for Democrats.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, this week said she was disinvited from Tuesday’s debate after complaining that her party was scheduling too few of them.

A spokeswoman for DNC chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) disputed that account, saying Gabbard was welcome to attend as long as she wasn’t a distraction.

Will Joe Biden cast a long shadow?

One person who will not even be present at the Wynn Las Vegas on Tuesday will command a whole lot of attention: Vice President Biden.

CNN will reportedly have a lectern reserved for Biden but no one realistically expects him to appear behind it. 

“He’s looming over the debate,” Simmons said, adding that Biden is in an “enviable position.”

Biden could make news if he announces his candidacy before the debate takes place — or immediately afterward. Simmons said it would be a “clever thing to do” in the hours before the debate because it “busts up the news cycle.”

“He would become the story,” the strategist said.

Will the Dems embrace Obama? Or refute him?

Biden isn’t the only absent figure who the candidates will have to keep in their thoughts.

President Obama remains beloved by much of the Democratic base, even as his approval ratings in the nation at large are tepid. 

Clinton has broken with the president in some areas, most notably the TPP. She has also come out against the Keystone XL pipeline, on which Obama has yet to announce a decision.

Clinton’s position on the TPP could leave her open to the charge of flip-flopping, given that she praised the TPP as the “gold standard” of trade agreements while in the administration. Sanders can legitimately paint himself as to the left of Obama, perhaps hoping to capitalize on progressive unease with the president on subjects such as civil liberties and national security. 

However, there are complications for Sanders, too. He has struggled to win support from black Democrats and any strident criticism of the nation’s first black president could backfire badly.

“The fact is that, to rank and file Democrats, Obama is still respected and, in many respects, revered,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.

Can an underdog break out?

Of the five candidates on the stage, three have nothing to lose — and that makes them unpredictable, and perhaps dangerous, for both Clinton and Sanders. 

O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee have such lowly standing in the polls that there is no downside to them trying something dramatic or spectacular.

While Chafee’s candidacy is widely regarded as a somewhat eccentric undertaking, Webb and, particularly, O’Malley will want to improve their standing.

O’Malley has been critical of Clinton throughout the campaign, and his team has thrown some jabs at Sanders, too, notably asserting he is “no progressive when it comes to guns” in a campaign ad back in June.

There are plenty of political insiders who dismiss the idea of O’Malley or Webb breaking through. But one example from the other side of the aisle suggests the possibility should not be entirely discounted.

“No one was talking about Carly Fiorina until the Republican debates and now, all of a sudden, she’s a player,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “One of them has to do the same things she did to get on the radar … There’s no reason why O’Malley can’t.”

Tags 2016 Democratic primary Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Jim Webb Lincoln Chaffee Martin O'Malley

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