Friday’s attacks in Paris that killed more than 100 people could weigh heavily on tonight’s Democratic debate, with White House hopefuls pressed anew on how they would combat terrorism and a growing threat from ISIS. The debate’s initial focus will be on the attacks, as to be expected, according to a source with knowledge of debate preparations.
Foreign policy and national security was already a top issue in the 2016 campaign, but much more so on the Republican side. The Democratic primary, to this point, has been dominated by kitchen-table domestic issues, like income inequality, student debt, family leave, as well as gun violence and immigration.
Now, the three remaining Democratic contenders, who will take the stage in Iowa — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — can likely expect even more questions about how they would combat ISIS and keep America safe.
That will spotlight the candidates varying levels of fluency with the issue. It will be something Clinton, as former secretary of state, will be expected to have a strong handle on. But it could also be complicating for her, given her close ties to the Obama administration and rising American anxieties on the president’s handling of foreign policy.
The attacks may hang over the party’s second debate, but two hours — with just three candidates on the stage — should allow plenty of time to get to other issues.
The trio met last Friday night in South Carolina, but it wasn’t a debate — due to Democratic National Committee rules each had to appear separately and weren’t allowed to directly question the other. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some jabs thrown, and last week both Sanders and O’Malley previewed the likely attacks they’ll try to use against Clinton, who still has a lead in national polls and most early state surveys.
Clinton received praise for her performance in last month’s first debate, and she’ll be looking to build on that with another strong turn. For both Sanders and O’Malley though, they’ll have to find ways to draw distinctions or risk fading further to the background.
The event could struggle to draw eyeballs, though — competing against top college-football games and weekend events. While the GOP debates have been main weeknight events, last week’s Democratic forum was buried on a Friday night. Similarly, the party’s next debate will be on the Saturday night before Christmas.
This debate, at Drake University in Des Moines, will air on CBS from 9 to 11 p.m. ET. Here’s what each candidate needs to do and avoid.
Need: Come across as in command and reassuring on foreign policy; continue to try and prove her progressive bona fides without alienating a general-election audience
Avoid: Being too defensive or dismissive if attacked by rivals — or moderators — and yet not get sucked into the back and forth.
Hillary Clinton had a very good October. Questions about her emails eased after an assist from Bernie Sanders in the last debate as well as her performance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Since then, Democratic nerves have seemed to settle and her campaign has been on the upswing.
But now, she’ll be expected to live up to that. She’s going to have to show she put those frequent-flier miles as secretary of state to good use. She needs to show not only that she has the policy depth, which few doubt she does, but also show she can be a reassuring president Americans can trust in a time of crisis.
Expect her to try to take a general-election tack — turning her aim at Republicans instead of her fellow rivals, even though they may try to goad her into a back and forth.
Need: To show he’s presidential; not back down if he attacks Clinton over her emails; explain his Democratic socialist views in a way that’s not alienating to the party or the viewing audience; and to demonstrate his loyalty to the Democratic Party
Avoid: Appearing out of his depth on foreign policy; coming back to his same talking points on economic issues; appearing too angry
If the debate is dominated by foreign policy, Sanders can’t be upstaged by Clinton. He needs to show he’s presidential and can make viewers at home look at him and think he could be president, be the person who they want on TV walking them through the latest attack or tragedy and have confidence he would have the right strategy to respond.
One of Sanders’s strongest moments in last month’s debate was when he came to Clinton’s defense, declaring that the public was sick of hearing about her “damn emails.” But the line also robbed him of a valuable attack line against his main primary rival. In the weeks since, he’s backtracked on that statement and has said the federal investigation into her use of a private email server are indeed fair game. But his advisers told the New York Times he’ll only bring it up if prodded by the moderators.
“He’s closely studying her past remarks, trying to get a greater understanding of her past and present positions, so he can make the strongest substantive case for their differences on issues and decision-making,” Tad Devine, a top strategist for Sanders, told the Times.
Though Sanders has been reluctant to engage in personal attacks, campaigns are about contrasts, and he has appeared to plateau. He has to try to make some policy distinctions without backing down or appearing too personal. Do expect him to underscore other key areas where they differ — Sanders didn’t hesitate, for example, to point out last week that he opposed the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal long before Clinton decided to recently.
Sanders could be forced to fend off attacks himself, though. O’Malley opened up a new line of attack on Sanders last week, trying to paint the Vermont independent as an inauthentic Democrat who didn’t fully back President Obama in the Democratic primary in 2012.
Need: Show he has the foreign-policy chops; somehow knock Sanders off stride and make the viewers at home see him as a more viable alternative to Clinton; get his opponents to engage him on issues; and prove it’s not a two-person race
Avoid: Fading into the background, going the way of the other two candidates who already dropped out, and letting the evening become a Clinton vs. Sanders battle; complaining about time or rules or questions or the number of debates
With Paris, O’Malley has to look like he has the depth on foreign policy voters expect from a president, especially immediately after a terrorist attack.
O’Malley may be approaching his last stand if he can’t get some momentum after Saturday’s debate. Even with Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to run — and the exits of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee — O’Malley didn’t move much in the polls. He also continues to trail his opponents badly in the money race.
His best hope might be to draw his opponents into legitimate debates on issues. He has the most liberal proposals on gun control, something he can needle Sanders on. And this week, he’s attacked Clinton for using the word “illegal immigrant.”
Though O’Malley has gone after Clinton before, last Friday marked a turning point when he tried to take down Sanders by questioning his commitment to the Democratic Party for suggesting it wouldn’t be a bad idea for someone to have primaried Obama in 2012.
That might have some salience, but he can’t go too far with the loyalty attack and undermine himself. This week, he pointed out that Clinton had been a Republican when she was in college.