Can Hillary Clinton seem both warm and presidential? Can Bernie Sanders?
They and three other candidates will face the nation Tuesday night in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. They'll be scrutinized for their self-assurance and command of issues, and whether they demonstrate empathy toward voters 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 between Clinton and Sanders. Clinton, the former secretary of state, has the resume but has struggled to convey sensitivity and authenticity. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, has a feel for worried Americans but an unorthodox political background as a “democratic socialist.”
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Clinton has the stature. Sanders has the passion. Clinton has to answer about the contents, the security and the very existence of the private email server that she used while secretary of state. Sanders needs to explain what having socialist sympathies means and how he would pay for the government expansion he proposes.
The others face bigger obstacles, notably reminding voters that 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. Neither have Lincoln Chafee, a former 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:
HILLARY CLINTON: She’s competing Tuesday not only with Sanders but also with her past. Clinton’s negatives have been well-documented – her icy demeanor, her private email server, the fact that some don’t trust her. 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?
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? Single-payer government health care? And higher taxes?
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. 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 what it would take for him to surge is a mystery.
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.
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, and 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.