Democratic debate: Can anyone disrupt the Hillary vs. Bernie show?

In the Democratic debate Tuesday, Hillary Clinton will go toe-to-toe against her top rival, Bernie Sanders. But her biggest challenge may be doubts about her character. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File and Nati Harnik/AP
Left: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont poses for a portrait before an interview with The Associated Press in Washington, May 20, 2015. Right: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Oct. 7, 2015.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest opponent Tuesday night in the Democrats’ first presidential debate of the season may well be … Hillary Clinton.

Former Secretary Clinton’s challenge isn’t her declining lead against her top adversaries for the Democratic nomination – namely, Bernie Sanders and the as-yet unannounced Joe Biden. She’s still the odds-on favorite to win her party’s nomination, more so if Vice President Biden doesn’t run.

Clinton’s challenge is voters’ views of her character. And Tuesday’s televised debate in Las Vegas (9 p.m. Eastern time on CNN) is her best opportunity yet to show millions of Americans why they should be inspired by her and give her their trust.

“There has been a strange disconnect between Clinton and Democratic voters and a sense of resignation, rather than excitement, about her candidacy,” writes David Axelrod, former top political adviser to President Obama.

“Whatever else you think about him, [Vermont Senator] Sanders is utterly authentic. And right now, that is Clinton's challenge,” adds Mr. Axelrod, now director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. “It has been exacerbated by her clumsy, ever-evolving approach to the email issue – something certain to come up again in the debate – and her rapid-fire race to the left to co-opt Sanders' positions on trade, climate change and other issues that fire up the Democratic base.”

Axelrod’s analysis suggests that it may be too late for Clinton to change voters’ views of her. She can’t undo the decision to use a private e-mail server as secretary of State, and her bungled response to questions about that practice. She’s also highly unlikely (at least while a candidate) to rethink her newfound opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and the major Pacific Rim trade deal that she supported while it was in the works.

In particular, it may be difficult for Clinton to boost her poor rating among voters on honesty and trustworthiness. Only 35 percent of voters (of all political stripes) see her positively on those qualities, according to the latest CBS News poll. And unlike most other candidates in the race, Clinton is widely known to the American public, thus making it hard to change impressions.

But she does have some aces in her hand. A majority (53 percent) of all voters see her as a strong leader, and 51 percent see her as having the right experience to be a good president, according to CBS. Biden beats her on both counts – 55 percent on leadership and 60 percent on experience. And he beats all candidates of both parties on honesty and trustworthiness, at 61 percent.

So while Biden will not be on stage Tuesday night, his potential candidacy will loom large. Of course, a candidate never looks better than before they announce (and after they drop out), so if he were to get in, his record would get a thorough look in the media, which would likely bring his numbers down.

If Biden opts out, that leaves Clinton vs. Sanders as the main Democratic show. On Tuesday night, their rivalry will be center stage – the insider vs. the outsider, the pragmatist vs. the populist. Both are seen as strong debaters, though this will be Sanders’s first in a national presidential forum. By this time eight years ago, Clinton already had taken part in 13 Democratic presidential debates.

For Sanders, a political independent and self-described social democrat, Tuesday’s debate is an opportunity to introduce himself to the wider American electorate. His main challenge may be to convince Democrats that he’s electable.

But independent pollster John Zogby doesn’t see any reason for Sanders to change his approach.

“He’s offering clarity for the left of the party, and has gone a lot further than anyone thought he might,” says Mr. Zogby. “He should just continue to be himself.”

Clinton and Sanders aren’t expected to attack each other directly, in keeping with their practice so far. Sanders prides himself in presenting his own positive vision. Clinton clearly hopes to harness the energy and enthusiasm of Sanders supporters, in anticipation of winning the nomination.

But they won’t be the only two candidates on stage. Unlike the Republican field, which is so large the debates have been split into two – main stage and “undercard” – the Democratic undercard gets into the Las Vegas ring with the top two competitors.

And thus, even if Sanders backs off, the others are sure to go after Clinton’s policy positions, including her recent left turn on Keystone and trade.

Perhaps the most frustrated candidate in the Democratic field is former two-term Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who on paper should be a strong competitor. He represents the next generation of Democratic leadership, in contrast to the senior citizens who lead the field. But his effort to come in to the left of Clinton has been eclipsed by Sanders, and with no debates until now, he has had little opportunity to break out of the pack.

The late start to debate season, and the limited number of debates (six), has frustrated Mr. O’Malley no end, but his protests brought no relief. Now, finally, he will have his moment in the spotlight. Tuesday could be a do or die moment for him. O’Malley is languishing in the polls with an average of 0.6 percent of the Democratic vote.

Also taking part are former one-term Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a conservative Democrat who served as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democratic former governor and senator. They, too, are polling under 1 percent.

Perhaps the Democratic “undercard” can gain inspiration from the example of Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, whose strong debate performances have moved her from obscurity to the GOP’s top tier.

Given Clinton’s big money and organization, the passion of Sanders supporters, and the Biden wild card, it would seem a stretch for anyone else to break into contention for the Democrats. But in this unpredictable year, one can’t blame the others for dreaming.

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