We're finally here -- just hours away from the first Democratic presidential debate, and the pressure is on.
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Five candidates are meeting tonight under the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip, but it’s up to them to make sure the event isn’t lackluster. Democrats need to show they can bring as much excitement, energy and passion to the race as Republicans.
For that to happen, the three candidates on stage not named Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders desperately need to boost their name recognition and generate some headlines. For Clinton and Sanders, "no news” might be "good news" come Wednesday morning.
Here’s what each candidate needs to prove tonight:
Hillary Clinton: Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off
Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner, and tonight she needs to remind people why. After a summer bogged down with her ongoing email controversy and dropping poll numbers, Clinton now has a fresh opportunity to reintroduce her vision for the presidency to voters, and to step up to the plate and prove party skeptics wrong. While Clinton is known for being a strong debater, the dynamic on stage will be particularly tricky.
For the first time, she will come face to face with her closest challenger, and the progressive favorite, Bernie Sanders. Clinton has made it clear that she has no desire to attack him, but she will have to find ways to draw differences with him (and in ways that don’t upset his supporters).
Meanwhile, Clinton will almost certainly also have to answer questions from her opponents about flip-flopping on policy issues. Even so, Clinton will be coming prepared. She’s been hunkering down and doing her homework -- including holding mock debate sessions with top aides who have been playing the parts of Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Bernie Sanders: Look Presidential
In many ways, Sanders has the most to lose. So far his campaign has successfully (even surprisingly) stolen the spotlight on the left, drawing huge crowds, jumping up in the polls, and rattling Clinton. As the leading alternative to her, he comes into the night with the most momentum and excitement behind him. The question now – can he handle it? Many democratic voters remain undecided and those on the fence worry the 74-year-old Democratic Socialist might not hold up in a general election. Sanders needs to prove to them that he can look presidential and “electable.” Plus, he needs good answers to questions outside his wheelhouse, as his opponents will try to portray him as a one-trick-pony, focused only on issues of class and income inequality.
Martin O’Malley: Get On The Map
If you complain about needing more debates, you better bring it to the first. As the loudest critic of the party’s limited debate schedule, O’Malley has set expectations high for himself, and his campaign has been busy tweeting pictures showing the young, studly governor getting ready, working hard, and working out! But O’Malley needs to do more than look good, he needs to make something happen. Stuck in single digits in the polls, O’Malley needs a big night. The trick will be managing that pressure. On the trail lately he has been quick to criticize Clinton and viewers can expect sparks Tuesday. But for the tough talk to payoff, O’Malley needs to make sure he doesn’t come across too hot or too aggressive.
Kudos to O’Malley for the best pre-debate line this week:
Martin O'Malley, in Rochester, NH, on his hope for the first Democratic debate: "Let us hope what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas."— John Wagner (@WPJohnWagner) October 4, 2015
Lincoln Chafee: Nice To Meet You
Chafee’s primary concern on the debate stage will be to introduce himself and his record to the majority of voters who do not know him. In the weeks leading up the debate, there was a question as to whether Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island, would even be invited onstage as he was consistently coming up short of the polling threshold (1 percent in national polls). But Chafee says he isn’t rattled. "I have the best resume of anyone running,” he told ABC News. "I am very proud of my record and deserve to be a part of this debate and discussion.” On the stump, he is quick to pivot back to that record of his as a senator and governor, but Tuesday night, as millions of Americans see him for the first time, he needs to show he has ideas for the future, not just an accomplished past.
Jim Webb: Be Different
Like Chafee, Webb’s first task is to introduce himself and his ideas to the American people. Most folks are not closely acquainted with the former Marine and Republican, turned-Democrat Senator. An author, who also served as the Secretary of the Navy, Webb brings a diverse resume to this field, and the advantage of that is he actually has something different to say. He is much more conservative than the others when it comes to social issues like guns and he has vocalized support for the Keystone Pipeline and opposition to the Iran deal unlike his primary opponents. But the often soft-spoken man will need to speak up so those ideas can be heard.