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Eye On Candidates
October 13, 2015

Onstage Tonight: O’Malley, Webb, Sanders, Chafee and Clinton Face Off

Five Democratic presidential hopefuls will take the stage in Las Vegas this evening in their first debate of the 2016 nomination process. Just as with the Republican contenders before their first face-off, there is no shortage of advice for candidates regarding what they need to do and for viewers on what they ought to be looking for. The Washington Post this morning offers nine items to be on the lookout for, a few of which are excerpted below:

9 questions for the Democratic debate — Will Bernie lose his temper? Will Hillary connect?

How does Clinton handle Sanders without being too dismissive? Let’s remember that Hillary is a very talented debater. She fared well in her two dozen showdowns with Barack Obama. Her relentless message discipline suits itself to this medium, and she has real gravitas coming from 25 years spent on the public stage. A lot of what people have heard about her recently was translated through the media filter; she comes across better in person than in defensive soundbytes (sic).

Hillary seeks to look presidential and electable tonight, but she does not want to look stiff. While getting into an argument with her foes isn’t advisable, staying above the fray might make her look entitled. The key for Clinton is to show some energy and fire while also highlighting her experience. It’s a tricky balancing act, but pre-debate expectations are pretty low. So she should be able to pretty easily exceed them.

Will Bernie lose his temper? Sanders does not suffer fools and risks coming across as unlikable if he gets snarly. Back in Vermont, past rivals say it is relatively easy to get under the senator’s skin. Bernie is not prepping through mock debates, and he’s not used to mixing it up with critics….

While many of the questions revolve around former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb also have questions posed for them:

Does O’Malley get a post-debate bounce? It’s hard to foresee the Maryland governor becoming even less of a factor in the Democratic contest. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published yesterday showed that he’s getting just 4 percent among Democratic primary voters in his home state! (Hillary leads in Maryland with 43 percent, followed by Joe Biden at 26 percent and Sanders at 20 percent.)

No one has pushed harder for more debates than O’Malley.  If he does not have a breakout performance, his money struggles will become more acute and it will be harder to woo early state activists. “If he gives a mediocre performance, he’s done,” a Democratic operative with ties to the Maryland governor told The Post’s John Wagner.

Does Jim Webb show up? The ex-Virginia senator is the biggest wildcard because you never know what you’re going to get. Since announcing his candidacy, he’s done very little campaigning. But Webb, the former Army secretary and Vietnam veteran, has a very impressive resume that could allow him to go toe-to-toe with the ex-secretary of state on foreign policy. He could criticize Clinton on Syria, Iran and possibly her vote to go into Iraq, which he opposed. As for his strategy: “Eisenhower didn’t yap about D-Day in advance,” a Webb spokesman told Time.

Bloomberg Politics offers its observation that for O’Malley, tonight may be his opportunity to break through, or continue to be stuck in the bottom tier. The tenor and tone of the article suggest he has a difficult challenge ahead of him tonight:

Tuesday's debate will be O'Malley's biggest moment in the spotlight since the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. Sandwiched between fellow rising stars in the party such as Deval Patrick and Julian Castro, he used the prime-time slot to praise President Barack Obama’s record, rail against Swiss bank accounts, and wax poetic about Revolutionary War heroes and America, “the greatest job-generating, opportunity-expanding country ever created by a free people in the history of civilization!”

The reviews were mixed. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish said that “O’Malley improved as he went along.” Writer Peter Beinart tweeted, “10 more minutes of O'Malley and I’ll vote for Romney.” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said O’Malley’s enthusiasm came off as “manufactured not organic,” adding: “O’Malley came into his speech tonight with high expectations ... Those expectations turned out to be too high.”  

His campaign seems to be hoping to emulate the performance of Republican Carly Fiorina in the first Republican debate, where she was relegated to the early event for candidates not high enough in the polls to qualify for the main stage:

The GOP nomination fight may hold some lessons for O'Malley. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson enjoyed poll bounces after their last debate—and others, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, turned in forgettable performances.

“You can be nothing and suddenly be something,” said Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducts surveys for Bloomberg Politics. “It's also true that you can be nothing and also continue to be nothing.”

The Hill also offers several questions for tonight’s debate, including one that picks up on the Fiorina example:

Can an underdog break out?

Of the five candidates on the stage, three have nothing to lose — and that makes them unpredictable, and perhaps dangerous, for both Clinton and Sanders. 

O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee have such lowly standing in the polls that there is no downside to them trying something dramatic or spectacular.

While Chafee’s candidacy is widely regarded as a somewhat eccentric undertaking, Webb and, particularly, O’Malley will want to improve their standing.

O’Malley has been critical of Clinton throughout the campaign, and his team has thrown some jabs at Sanders, too, notably asserting he is “no progressive when it comes to guns” in a campaign ad back in June.

There are plenty of political insiders who dismiss the idea of O’Malley or Webb breaking through. But one example from the other side of the aisle suggests the possibility should not be entirely discounted.

“No-one was talking about Carly Fiorina until the Republican debates and now, all of a sudden, she’s a player,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “One of them has to do the same things she did to get on the radar. … There’s no reason why O’Malley can’t.”

While Clinton and Sanders are dominating the pre-debate analysis and expectations game, with O’Malley popping up most frequently as the candidate with the potential to climb into contention, Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee get some attention in a piece in Time magazine:

Most people have never heard of them, and they both want to be president. On Tuesday, Webb (the veteran) and Chafee (the Ivy League guy) will both take the stage in Las Vegas for the first Democratic presidential debate next to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as well as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley….

Webb and Chafee have a surprising amount in common, besides their low poll numbers. Their ideas range from the quixotic (Chafee wants to implement the metric system) to the grand (Webb wants to overhaul the criminal justice system).

Both of them were opponents of the decision to invade Iraq, which the article notes could become a line of attack against Clinton in the debate. And while there’s not much expectation that Chafee will exceed already low expectations, The Washington Post did have an article the other day suggesting Webb might be able to break through tonight:

If there’s a chance for a wild card on the stage at Tuesday’s lead-off Democratic debate, the smart money’s on former senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

Running an unconventional presidential campaign with little ground support, advertising or even public appearances, Webb somehow manages to march on. And with an eclectic set of views that defy categorization, he has a chance to draw attention and find, or repel, a new audience Tuesday in Las Vegas….

In an atmosphere where establishment politicians are despised on both sides of the aisle, Webb’s genuine rebelliousness could be an asset. Yet voters also want to be courted, and Webb appears to have done little wooing in the early states.

It seems likely the main story coming out of the debate will revolve around Clinton, Sanders, and Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet announced whether he will run but was mentioned in nearly every pre-debate piece. But it’s also likely that media pundits will at least try to elevate one of the three bottom-tier candidates into “contender” status, if only to rattle the frontrunners. Whether that sticks could wind up being as big of a story this week as who actually performs best in tonight’s debate.