Five things to watch in tonight's Democratic debate

Five things to watch in tonight's Democratic debate
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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Republicans cancel airtime in swing Vegas district The Democratic Donald Trump is coming MORE and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBooker holds 'Get Out the Vote' event in South Carolina as presidential speculation builds The Democratic Donald Trump is coming Biden: Trump administration 'coddles autocrats and dictators' MORE will go head-to-head as they make their final pitches to New Hampshire voters at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, just five days ahead of the primary.

This will be the first time they are pitted against each other onstage without Martin O’Malley, who dropped out of the race after a poor performance in the Iowa caucuses Monday.


Here are the five things to watch:


How negative do both Clinton and Sanders go?

The stakes are getting higher after Clinton defeated Sanders by a razor-thin margin in Iowa, and the Vermont senator is seen as the prohibitive favorite to win the Granite State.

As the race began to tighten a few weeks back, Sanders started to sharpen his attacks and push back on Clinton by tying her to Wall Street.

Her campaign has criticized him for abandoning his pledge to not wage a negative campaign and hit him on his support for a single-payer healthcare system and his record on gun control. She has also framed his proposals as unrealistic.

While the debate is unlikely to spiral into a cage match, Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said, Sanders needs to “land a knockout punch” if he wants to have a future in later primary contests.

“He has to win in New Hampshire, because if he doesn’t, people are going to ask the question: If he can’t win Iowa or New Hampshire, where does he win?” Bannon said.


Can Sanders hold his own on national security?

Sanders has sought to demonstrate his knowledge on foreign policy and show that he’s a well-rounded candidate. But he often reverts to his stump speech, which is heavy on the economy.

He frequently hammers Clinton over her 2002 vote as a senator to authorize the Iraq War as a way of questioning the former secretary of State’s foreign policy judgment. But strategists say he can’t continue to rely on that one attack line and needs to define his own credibility on national security issues.

“His whole message there is the Iraq War, and that’s a long time ago,” Democratic political consultant Mike Fraioli said. “He seems to focus on that vote in terms of big-picture stuff. It’s a legitimate kind of a Johnny-one-note.”

Sanders will need to find a way to make the case that he’ll be a competent commander in chief over a candidate with Clinton’s experience.

“He has to do something to make himself more credible on those issues,” Bannon said. “If I was advising Hillary Clinton, I would tell her to focus very much on national security issues. That’s what’s pushing her candidacy right now and hurting Bernie.”


How does each candidate appeal to independents?

New Hampshire has an open primary system, which means voters registered as independents can choose to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary.

Strategists say that while they are uncertain how independents will vote in this election, Clinton and Sanders should appeal to this voter bloc that could have a hand in propelling them to victory.

Appealing to independents, strategists say, will come down to Sanders’s case for a political revolution versus Clinton’s experience.

“If I was advising the Sanders campaign, I would make the argument that politics is broken and if you want to fix the political system, come vote for Sanders,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “If I was advising Clinton, I would make the argument that politics is broken and we need somebody who can walk across party lines … equipped to be president on the first day in office.”

Clinton has the cards stacked against her in the Granite State, but some view that as an opportunity for her to frame herself as a candidate who won’t back down from a tough fight.

“I don’t see her going in as a front-runner, but saying, ‘I’m here and fighting and I’m going to keep fighting.’ New Hampshire might find that appealing,” said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean’s White House bid in 2004. “It’s about showing she’s willing to fight even though she’s down big and [there is] not a whole lot of chance closing the gap.”


Does Sanders look beyond New Hampshire?

While Sanders has a significant advantage going into New Hampshire, he faces a longer-term problem as he seeks the nomination.

He easily surpasses Clinton in Granite State polls and lives in a neighboring state, but she fares much better among minority voters, who will make up more of the electorate in upcoming contests.

“I kind of expect both of them to kind of reach out beyond New Hampshire in the debate,” Trippi said. “Bernie Sanders is not performing well with minorities at all in South Carolina. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t try to speak out on some issues to try to reach those voters.”


After Iowa, which Republicans do they go after?

Some strategists suggest steering clear of the GOP primary and letting it play out, while others think it’s a good way to contrast the parties on important issues.

Bannon pointed to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke gives 'a definitive no' to possibility of running in 2020 Vicente Fox endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race Beto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' MORE as examples.

“Trump makes such an incredibly good boogie man, you can’t ignore him,” he said. “Cruz goes in the same category as Trump. That’s how you scare Democrats.”

But after Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia On The Money: Treasury official charged with leaking info on ex-Trump advisers | Trump to seek 5 percent budget cut from Cabinet members | Mnuchin to decide by Thursday on attending Saudi conference MORE’s strong third-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses, about 1 percentage point behind Trump, Democrats are turning their attention to the Florida senator.

“Rubio has a window to win in New Hampshire. I would go after him too,” Bannon said. “I don’t think many Democrats know who he is, and he’s a big player in New Hampshire, so I think you got to include him.”