Elections

Democrats brace for first Election ’16 showdown

Can Hillary Clinton look and act presidential in the first Democratic debate?
Can Hillary Clinton look and act presidential in the first Democratic debate? AP

Can Hillary Clinton seem both warm and presidential? Can Bernie Sanders?

They and three other challengers will face the nation Tuesday night in the year’s first Democratic presidential debate at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. They’ll be scrutinized for their self-assurance and command of issues, and whether they demonstrate empathy toward voters still feeling wounded by years of economic turmoil.

The debate is the opening chapter of a new, intense phase for a Democratic campaign fought so far in the media and in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The next acts will come quickly – Clinton appears before the House of Representatives’ Benghazi committee nine days later, and the candidates debate again Nov. 14 and Dec. 19.

So far, the Democratic race is a one-on-one duel between Clinton and Sanders. Clinton, the former secretary of state, has the resume but has struggled to convey sensitivity. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, has a feel for worried Americans but an unorthodox political background as a socialist Democrat.

Clinton has the stature. Sanders has the passion.

Clinton has to answer about the contents, and the very existence of, her private email server that she used while secretary of state. Sanders needs to explain what having socialist sympathies means and how he’ll pay for his government expansion.

Clinton leads the Democratic field with 41 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Sanders is next at 25 percent, and Vice President Joe Biden, who’s not in the race, has 19 percent.

The others face bigger obstacles, notably reminding voters they’re even in the race. Despite his credentials, Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, has been barely noticed. Ditto Lincoln Chafee, an ex-U.S. senator and former governor of Rhode Island, and Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia.

Here’s how the candidates can help themselves:

Tier One: The front-runners

HILLARY CLINTON

She’s competing Tuesday not only with Sanders but with her past. Clinton’s negatives have been well-documented – her icy demeanor, her private email server, and so on.

Clinton has stepped up her efforts to reintroduce herself. She took a tough stand on gun control, starred in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, and launched a cable TV ad highlighting House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s claim that her poll numbers plunged because of the Republican-led Benghazi committee’s work.

She’s still the front-runner, and the most interesting aspect of the debate will be how she performs.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Tuesday, she has to be both a tough leader and a gentle soul. Can she project warmth and self-confidence without crossing the line to smugness and arrogance?

More consequential is the question that’s dogged Clinton for years: Can she convince voters they can trust her? Why, for instance, did she change her position last week and oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty after calling it the “gold standard” of trade deals in 2012?

And why did Clinton even have a private server while at the State Department?

The substance of her answers, and more importantly her tone, will go a long way in determining how she fares.

On April 12, 2015 former senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her run for President of the United States. Find out where the democratic candidate stands on immigration, ISIS, the minimum wage and gay marriage. Video by Natalie

BERNIE SANDERS

The Democrats’ summer star now has two more daunting tasks: How can he expand his constituency? And how can he make voters envision him as a commander in chief?

Sanders routinely draws big, enthusiastic audiences eager to work on his behalf. His views, though, tend to be well outside what’s considered the American political mainstream. A trillion-dollar infrastructure program? Free college tuition? Government-run health care? And higher taxes? That’s a tough sell in a general election, let alone in a Democratic nominating battle.

Sanders, though, has tapped into deeply felt outrage about big business and government. Consumers still haven’t completely gotten over the economic shocks of the 2007-09 recession and are still wary of the financial institution-government relationship. Sanders has long had credibility as a fighter against those excesses. But while people may appreciate his fight, will they want him in the White House?

Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 presidential race on May 26, 2015, running as a Democrat. Find out where he stands on four of the biggest issues this election: immigration, ISIS, job growth and gay marriage. (Video by Natalie Fertig / McClatchy DC

42% Sanders’ showing in the latest NBC/Wall St. Journal/Marist New Hampshire poll, 14 percentage points ahead of Clinton.

Tier Two: The others

MARTIN O’MALLEY

Why can’t he get any traction? Even in his home state, a new Goucher Poll found he was the choice of 2 percent of Democrats. “He’s been in the race eight months and he’s only tied with low fat milk,” Jay Leno quipped recently on MSNBC. O’Malley takes positions popular with the Democratic base, has a respected resume and at 52 is by far the youngest of the five candidates. But he hasn’t broken through yet, and it’s a mystery as to what it would take for him to surge.

Find out where Maryland governor and candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the U.S. stands on immigration policy, ISIS, the minimum wage and gay marriage.

LINCOLN CHAFEE

How hard will he challenge Clinton? Chafee, then a Republican U.S. senator , voted against the Iraq War in 2002. Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, voted for it. That vote dogged her during her 2008 presidential campaign, and in her memoir last year, she said she “got it wrong.” Chafee, though, has little money and little visible support. To get noticed, he’s going to have to distinguish himself from the rest and offer a more dynamic image than he’s used to presenting.

Former U.S. Senator and Governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee announced his bid for the democratic nomination for President of the United States on June 3, 2015. Find out where he stands on ISIS, immigration, gay marriage and the minimum wage. (

JIM WEBB

Are there Democrats eager for his tough guy message? Webb has never been easy to classify politically. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he was secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, then won a Senate seat in Virginia in 2006 as a Democrat. His strength is national security, and he says he would not have voted to authorize the Iraq invasion.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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