Five things to watch for in second Democratic debate

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Saturday’s Democratic debate stage has been cut almost in half, with the departure from the race of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The three remaining candidates will take the stage for the second debate at 9 p.m.

Here are five things to watch.

{mosads}How will the moderators approach the debate?

While the moderators of CNBC’s GOP presidential debate became the headline last month after candidates immediately criticized them for biased questions, don’t expect Saturday’s Democratic contest to have a similar theme.

CBS’ John Dickerson, the host of the network’s vaunted “Face the Nation” Sunday show, will run the show, with help from CBS Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes and members of the Iowa political media.

From the get-go, Dickerson has made it clear that he wants to be as invisible as possible on debate night, telling CBS that he hopes to be “a window.”

“The voters should see the voters through our questions and I hopefully won’t do anything to get in the way of that commerce,” he said in an interview Friday.

He specifically noted the rift between candidates on gun control, health care, foreign policy and the economy, so expect much of his questions to be focused on ironing out those disagreements.

The inclusion of Iowa-based reporters will likely ensure the debate includes an ample focus on the Hawkeye State, where Hillary Clinton has gained a net 13 points since last month’s debate.

How hard does Clinton go after Bernie Sanders?

Democratic strategists agree that Clinton has almost nothing to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by attacking Sanders and thus alienating his passionate base of some 30 percent of the party’s primary voters.

During the first Democratic debate, Sanders appeared rattled when Clinton turned sharply against him on guns.

The tactic worked, and Clinton needed to hit Sanders on it after a difficult few months where the ongoing email controversy wounded her and aided her rival’s rise. Clinton followed the debate with insinuations that Sanders had been sexist when he suggested that she was shouting about guns.

But things have changed dramatically to Clinton’s benefit since then. She has commanded more money, extended her ground-game and stretched her lead in national and most state polls over Sanders. She has tamped down the email controversy to some extent, and benefited from Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to run.

Just about everything has gone right for Clinton since the first debate. And this time she can afford to play nice.

Will Clinton take swipes at specific Republicans?

With nothing to gain in attacking Sanders, it’s more likely that Clinton turn her attention to specific Republican opponents, setting her sights toward the general election.

She has already mixed it up with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is emerging as an establishment front-runner, and the growing rivalry could take center stage during this debate, giving Clinton the platform to defend her record and scrutinize Rubio.

Clinton has been caught in real estate mogul Donald Trump’s crosshairs and has responded with her own line of attacks, especially when it comes to women’s issues. She will likely use Trump as a foil to her party and tie the national Republican party to his bombastic and controversial comments.

What may be more telling is who Clinton doesn’t bring up — a sign of which GOP candidates the Democrat views as less of a threat. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once a central focus of Clinton’s team, has recently plummeted in the polls after several weak debate performances. The absence of his name in Saturday’s debate could subtly signal that he’s losing his footing in the race.

How negative does Bernie go?

Sanders stuck to his guns in the last debate and wouldn’t engage in negative campaigning even when Clinton’s emails came into the spotlight. Dismissing the email controversy that has repeatedly dogged her campaign has benefitted Clinton and she has enjoyed a boost in the polls since her debate performance.

Now that his summer surge has started to wane and Vice President Biden isn’t in the race to challenge Clinton, Sanders has ramped up his attacks toward Clinton, forgoing his pledge against negative tactics.

Since letting Clinton off in the last debate over her emails, Sanders has since said the investigation into them should ‘proceed unimpeded.” Whether he engages in talk of her emails may make him look like he’s reversing his original position, or it may help to rip off the scab of a wound Clinton hoped had been healing.

Even if he doesn’t jump at the email issue, he could still go after her regarding Wall Street, an arena where the Vermont senator has taken the lead and has scrutinized Clinton’s close ties. They both trumpet their support for Wall Street reform, but Sanders has gone one step further to call for breaking up big banks and affirms that his stance is tougher than Clinton’s.

And after a heated exchange in the last debate between the two on Sander’s wavering record on gun control, he may go on the offensive when explaining where he stands and reiterating that he supports bans on assault weapons and closing gun show loopholes.

Does Martin O’Malley go scorched Earth?

If Sanders needs to hit for a home run to knock Clinton off her game and stunt her momentum, the former Maryland governor needs a walk-off grand slam. 

While he just tied his all-time polling high with 5 percent in the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, O’Malley is miles away from Sanders, let alone Clinton. 

With infinitely fewer resources than his rivals, O’Malley needs to make the most of his debate-stage appearance, but it’s unclear how he’ll do so. 

One line of thinking is that he’ll go scorched Earth, launching a salvo of pointed attacks at Clinton in the hopes of knocking her down a peg. 

An emphasis on Clinton could do more to help Sanders than O’Malley, as it could give the Vermont senator a chance to pile on. But O’Malley could also decide to give Clinton a pass and hit Sanders in the hopes of taking over as the Clinton alternative.

But that tactic is not without its drawbacks. At 52 years old, he still has a lifetime in politics ahead of him. So making enemies now could end up hurting him more later.

Tags Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton

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