Five things to watch in Clinton-Sanders clash

Five things to watch in Clinton-Sanders clash
© Getty Images

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' The problem with Trump's Middle East peace plan Trump's Intel moves spark Democratic fury MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Buttigieg campaign claims 'irregularities' in Nevada caucuses Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden MORE are getting ready for their final showdown before the Iowa caucuses.

The Sunday evening clash, which will also feature former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, will be held in Charleston, S.C. and televised by NBC. 


It comes as Sanders has been closing in on Clinton in Iowa polls. The former secretary of State, scarred by memories of her loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the same state in 2008, has been hitting back hard on issues including gun control and healthcare.

The caucuses will take place in a little more than two weeks, on Feb. 1. Then it’s onward to the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, where Sanders, an independent senator from the adjacent state of Vermont, holds a small lead.

Sunday’s debate is the biggest set-piece moment in the campaign since the first debate in Las Vegas in October, which Clinton was widely seen as having won. There have been two unspectacular encounters since then.

With so much to play for, what are the biggest things to watch?

How aggressive will Sanders be with Clinton?

Sanders was too conciliatory toward Clinton during the Las Vegas debate in the eyes of many observers, especially when he came to her aid over her use of a private email account and server during her time as secretary of State. 

The senator has been adopting a much tougher tone of late, assailing Clinton for her ties to Wall Street and pushing back hard against her campaign’s jabs at him over healthcare. But Sanders is also ill-disposed to personal attacks; part of his appeal to his supporters is rooted in the idea that he practices a more elevated form of politics.

Sanders can’t allow himself to be swatted aside by Clinton, as he was in the first debate, and he would love to land some clear hits himself. Yet an all-out brawl would likely do him no favors.

“There has to be a balance there for him so he's not coming off as overly hostile towards Clinton,” said Pat Rynard, the founder of the Democratic news site “He only needs a few punches to close the deal.”

Will Clinton continue to attack on healthcare?

The Clinton campaign has been trying to turn Sanders’s preference for a single-payer healthcare system against him recently — a gambit that is a head-scratcher for many Democratic insiders. 

Particularly perplexing was Chelsea Clinton’s first appearance on the stump last week, in which she said that Sanders was intending to “dismantle” Medicare and other health programs, including ObamaCare. The factual basis of the attack was shaky, as Sanders’ proposals would instantly replace, and expand upon, the things that would be dismantled. The choice of Chelsea as the messenger also raised eyebrows. 

The larger puzzle is why the Clinton campaign is attacking the Vermonter on an issue where his position is overwhelmingly popular among Democratic voters. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month found some 81 percent of Democrats in favor of a single, government-run, universal healthcare plan, commonly labelled “Medicare for All.”

Hillary Clinton has voiced similar criticisms to those expressed by her daughter. Will she try to turn the page on Sunday evening, or will she intensify her critique?

Is Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonEx-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community Meghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' Enlightening the pardon power MORE’s past up for debate?

The ghosts of the 1990s have surfaced on the campaign trial in the recent past — specifically those relating to former President Clinton’s sexual behavior. 

At a town hall meeting earlier this month, Sanders said that “what Bill Clinton did” — meaning his infamous affair with intern Monica Lewinsky — “was totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.” But he immediately added, “I am running against Hillary Clinton, not Bill Clinton.”

The former president’s behavior has also been raised by GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE and his aides. One Trump spokeswoman told CNN last month that Hillary Clinton had “some nerve to talk about the war on women,” adding, “I can think of quite a few women who have been bullied by Hillary Clinton to hide her husband’s misogynist, sexist secrets.” 

It is unlikely that Sanders will raise the former president’s history with women of his own accord. But the moderators may well do so — and that could lead to moments that could either discomfit Clinton or spark sympathy for her.

South Carolina and the politics of race

Racial issues are guaranteed to be prominent in this debate. 

It is taking place in a city that suffered a mass shooting at a historic black church last June in which 9 people were killed. That tragedy came two months after an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, was shot dead by a white police officer in nearby North Charleston.

The debate is being co-hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and black voters make up a big part of the Democratic electorate in the South Carolina Democratic primary, scheduled for Feb. 27.

Polling indicates that Clinton enjoys a massive advantage over Sanders among black voters. Sanders’s campaign was also disrupted in its early days by protestors from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sanders aims to compete for black votes, however. He has released detailed proposals on issues of racial inequality and, on Thursday, he spoke at South Carolina State University, the first stop on a tour of at least nine historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

If either of the two major candidates shows a clear superiority over the other on issues of race on Sunday evening, it could have major ramifications.

The Other Candidate

O’Malley made it into this debate by the skin of his teeth. His campaign has been underwhelming: he registers just 2.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of national polls.

But the former governor could matter in Iowa, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the caucus system. 

At each caucus, a threshold of “viability” is set, and supporters of candidates who do not meet that threshold can transfer their backing to other, more popular contenders. 

The RCP average has O’Malley at 5.2 percent support in the Hawkeye State. That means there will likely be plenty of places where he proves non-viable. Where his supporters go next could make all the difference, given that Clinton’s overall lead in Iowa is just four points, according to RCP.

Expect both Clinton and Sanders to show O’Malley some love. 

“It's going to be interesting to see whether Clinton and Sanders play nice with him in order for them to attract his supporters their way,” Rynard said. 

Amie Parnes contributed.