4 things to watch for in the Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, waves to supporters following a town hall meeting at Strawberry Hill Elementary School on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Anamosa, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, waves to supporters following a town hall meeting at Strawberry Hill Elementary School on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Anamosa, Iowa. AP

Suddenly, it feels like the Democratic presidential debate Saturday night could be a lot more interesting.

Hillary Clinton is still looking to maintain her strong national lead among Democrats just six weeks before the first nominating contest of the 2016 presidential election.

But her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, has made significant gains in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state and location of the debate. On Thursday, he scored two big endorsements, from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America union and Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Clinton leads her rivals nationally by more than 20 points but many polls show Sanders has overtaken her in New Hampshire

And on Friday, Sanders filed a federal lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee for preventing his campaign from using its crucial voter database, which he thinks is part of the national party’s desire to smooth the path for Clinton.

The two-hour debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester will air on ABC starting at 8 p.m. EST. It will feature Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Here’s what to look for:

The DNC vs. Sanders

The Democratic National Committee cut off Sanders’ access to its campaign database Friday, a potentially crippling move in the age of digital campaigning.

The DNC made the move after its own vendor accidentally allowed Sanders’ campaign access to Clinton information. The Sanders campaign fired a staffer who did access the information, but it said the vendor was to blame for dropping its firewall and that the party cutoff would unfairly damage Sanders.

“This is unacceptable,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign – one of the strongest grass-roots campaigns in modern history.”

Sanders and O’Malley have accused the DNC for months of eagerly, if quietly, trying to make it easier for Clinton to secure the nomination. The senator will have to determine how far he’s willing to go in his criticism of Clinton now.

San Bernardino

This will be their first face-off since the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, left 14 people dead two weeks ago, raising fears of terrorism at home. That’s likely to change the tone of this debate, as the Paris terrorist attacks did the second debate.

The candidates will be questioned on the global fight against the Islamic State, the militant group that inspired this month’s husband-wife shooters, and gun control, again a source of contention after yet another mass shooting.

Sanders, who generally does not favor international intervention, is critical of Clinton’s hawkish tendencies on national security, including her vote in 2003 to authorize military force in Iraq, which she later came to regret.

Clinton reserves her rare criticism for Sanders on gun control, singling out his moderate record, which includes opposition to the 1993 Brady bill, which established federal background checks and a waiting period for potential gun owners.

Sanders’ rhetoric

He loves to talk about lifting up the middle class, blast the so-called billionaire class and tout the newly popular issue of income inequality.

After he was asked to share his thoughts on the terrorist attack in Paris at the second debate last month, Sanders uttered a mere two sentences on terrorism – totaling about 20 seconds – before quickly switching back to his standard stump speech.

You have to hand it to him, he is remarkably on point.

Kurt Meyer, Democratic chairman of a trio of rural counties in north-central Iowa

But for Sanders to be considered a serious contender by more Democrats, he’s going to have to show he’s well-versed and comfortable with other policy issues, foreign and domestic. His performance Saturday will indicate whether he has learned that lesson.

‘Not good enough’

When Sanders was asked last month what he thought of Clinton’s plan to rein in Wall Street, he said: “Not good enough.” When O’Malley was asked this month about Sanders’ plan to combat climate change, he said: “Not good enough.”

In a contest where the candidates are oftentimes indistinguishable on policy, they must find a way to explain how they differ from their rivals, even if it’s more about nuance than actual disagreements.

Unlike the Republicans running for president, the Democrats largely agree on major domestic issues, including economic policy, criminal justice and civil rights. The most voters might hear from these candidates are phrases such as “not good enough” as they try to set themselves apart from one other on records and policies.