Five Democratic candidates will face off Tuesday evening in Las Vegas, a city where dreams are made or crushed - even for presidential candidates. It's the first of six scheduled debates for the Democratic field and comes at a critical juncture of the race, less than four months before the first nominating contest.
With five candidates appearing on the stage in an early primary state, the front runners will try to maintain and expand their popularity while the lesser-known candidates hope for a breakout performance that will put them on the map.
Hillary Clinton will take the stage having lost support among Democrats in two early states, according to recent polls. She is trailing challenger Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire and her lead is shrinking in Iowa. But good news for Clinton is that a new poll in Nevada and South Carolina shows her with a commanding lead. Clinton is taking the stage amid controversy that has clouded her campaign over her private email server as secretary of state.
Sanders, meanwhile, is the insurgent candidate who few thought had a legitimate chance at competing for the nomination. But now that he is performing much better than expected, attracting thousands sometimes at his rallies, his populist appeal will be on full display Tuesday evening, giving people outside of the early nominating contests the opportunity to see and hear the veteran, but quirky, lawmaker.
The other three contenders on the stage have gained little traction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is polling consistently in third place but in the low single digits, will hope for a breakout performance on the national stage. For Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee and former Virginia Senate Jim Webb, this will be the first time most voters will be introduced to the relatively unknown contenders.
And all of this will take place with the backdrop of a potential Joe Biden run. The vice president has not announced that the will jump in the race, but he hasn’t announced that he’ll stay out, either.
Regardless of a Biden run, candidates will attempt to differentiate themselves among a field where a lot of differences between the candidates don’t really exist. But as Clinton is still considered the frontrunner, she is likely to see the majority of attacks. Here are some of the topics that could cause contention between the candidates:
Economic Inequality: This is Sander’s bread and butter issue. His economic populism is central to his entire political career and this is sure to be an issue that Sanders is going to feel most comfortable focusing on Tuesday night.
Even though Clinton recently released a proposal last week to “reign in” Wall Street, her proposal doesn’t go as far as Sanders’ and Clinton’s former constituents as a New York senator is Wall Street, so challengers are likely to point out the optics, regardless of the depth of the plan.
Sander said “that at time middle class declines and controlled by millionaires and billionaires, fighting for Americans” is the most important issue. “in that regard, Clinton and I have differences in terms of Wall Street.”
For instance, Sanders is fighting to have the big financial institutions broken up. In Clinton’s detailed policy proposal, she doesn’t go that far.
Trade: Just last week Clinton dropped a bombshell, coming out in opposition to the Trans Pacific-Partnership, a trade agreement between 12 countries. She previously spoke favorably of the trade proposal but then refused to give a definitive position after she announced her bid for the presidency. One week before the first debate, Clinton announced her opposition – a position already shared by her two closest challengers, both of whom are likely to attack her flip.
Sanders has said multiple times in past week that his opposition to TPP was a conclusion he reached well before Clinton.
“I'll let the American people determine who has credibility or not, but let me say, I'm glad that [Hillary] reached that conclusion, this is a conclusion that I reached from day 1,” he said at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute last week.
O’Malley took a similar attack. In Iowa last week he said critical to his leadership is “that I understand where I stand.,” adding that he was against the Trans-Pacific Partnership eight months ago.
Keystone: The Keystone XL Pipeline is likely to be another issue where contenders are likely to criticize Clinton and paint her as a tactical politician who changes positions to account for shifting politics. After months of refusing to give her opinion on the issue, Clinton came out against it, a nod to environmentalists who play a role in the Democratic primary.
If their recent statements are any indication, O’Malley and Sanders are likely to point out Clinton’s inconsistency.
“I was against the Keystone pipeline a year ago,” O’Malley said recently.
And Sanders on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily”: “I opposed the Keystone Pipeline because I believe that if you’re serious about climate change, you don’t encourage the excavation and transportation of very dirty oil. That was my position from day one.”
Syria: This is an issue where Clinton has broken with her Democratic challengers. Clinton, who is considered more hawkish than many Democrats, has come out in support of a no-fly zone over Syria. That’s a position adopted by many Republicans and considered an escalation of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, the former Maryland governor said he believes “a no-fly zone right now is not advisable.”
It’s likely that he and Sanders will paint Clinton as someone more likely to take the country into another war.
“Secretary Clinton is always quick for the military intervention,” O’Malley added.
Sanders also opposes a no-fly zone over Syria.
Iraq: Sanders could very well bring up a 12-year old issue that sabotaged Clinton’s 2008 run for the presidency – the Iraq War vote. She voted for it and it is a vote that probably more than any issue has defined her political career.
Sanders said last week in Colorado, “You are looking at a former congressman who heard what George W Bush and Dick Cheney said about Iraq - I listened to them and you know what, I didn't believe them and I voted against the war in Iraq.”
Guns: This is the one issue where Clinton is further to the left of Sanders and will likely attack him for it. Sanders has been supportive of gun rights during his political career. After the latest mass shooting in Oregon, Sanders he close to Clinton on the issue, supporting background checks and closing the gun-show loophole.
O’Malley, meanwhile, is sure to paint both Clinton and Sanders and not being strict enough on gun control.
"I've called on the other candidates in this race - Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders - to join me in calling for the common sense things like a ban on combat assault weapons, requiring background checks with finger prints, using the full power of the federal government to insist that gun manufacturers do things like micro stamping and other best technology. Or to make illegal gun trafficking a federal crime, which it is not today,” he said after the Oregon shooting.