Sanders and O’Malley trail Clinton by more than 20 points in polls, according to an average of national polls.
The two-hour debate at Drake University, airing on CBS starting at 9 p.m. EST, will feature them plus former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Here’s what to look for:
Can Clinton do it again?
She’s had a good run over the last month, lauded for a strong performances at the first debate and in an 11-hour grilling on Capitol Hill about the fatal 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. The polls, already in her favor, have shifted even more so.
The dynamic has completely changed. Hillary has momentum. It’s a question of how she uses it.
Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa
She needs to prove this isn’t just a phase, that she deserves her front-runner status after several months of questions about her judgment for possibly jeopardizing national security for exclusively using a personal email system while secretary of state.
Clinton will try to repeat her performance from last month, when she showed a commanding grasp of the issues while contrasting herself with Sanders and pushing back on attacks without appearing too negative or overly confident. Her best bet, some say, is to continue to take swipes at Sanders’ moderate record on gun control – an area where the senator from a rural, pro-gun state may be vulnerable.
How close to Obama?
It wasn’t long ago that political watchers expected the candidates to distance themselves from President Barack Obama, who has seen his party move steadily to the left. After all, they oppose his trade pact with Pacific nations, vow to do more than him to fix the nation’s broken immigration system and campaign on dismantling a piece of his health care law.
And yet they have begun to embrace the president, who has had a productive few months on a slew of issues, including negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and hashing out a long-term budget agreement with Congress.
Clinton said she wants to build on Obama’s successes. Sanders calls him a friend. O’Malley, who has become increasingly sharp in his attacks, accuses Sanders of betraying the president in 2012 by seeking to recruit a primary challenger for him.
Look to the debate to see just far they go in their support.
How will Sanders appeal to more voters?
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, garners large crowds. He continues to raise millions of dollars. He boasts an intense following that engages in enthusiastic tweets that use the hashtag #FeeltheBern. But with Clinton on her way up, some wonder if Sanders has reached a plateau.
Bernie needs to find a way to distinguish himself. He needs to find a way to reignite the enthusiasm.
Wayne Lesperance, director of the New England College Polling Institute
He needs to speak on a host of policy issues while being more personable and moving past his serious persona. “People think I am grumpy,” he acknowledged last week.
Sanders has already started to portray a softer side by speaking to smaller groups, appearing on non-news TV shows and releasing get-to-know-you ads. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that his grandchildren are “the joy of my life.”
What about Syria
Obama recently announced that the U.S. is deploying a small contingent of special operations forces into Syria to help opposition groups beat back the Islamic State. Clinton backs the decision, while both Sanders and O’Malley are wary of ground troops in the war-ravaged country.
Sanders and O’Malley may see an opening to go after Clinton, both on her support as well as what critics are calling another Clinton flip-flop.
As secretary of state, Clinton advocated for a more aggressive U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. But in October, before she backed Obama’s actions, she said she was opposed to American troops on the ground in Syria.
Clinton’s campaign said she “sees merit in the targeted use of special operations personnel” but strongly opposes the U.S. entering a larger ground war in the Middle East. All three candidates say they want the crisis to be solved diplomatically, not militarily.