What everyone wants out of tonight’s Democratic presidential primary debate

Leading presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face off tonight.
Leading presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face off tonight.
Image: AP Photos/Michael Dwyer/Charlie Neibergall
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Make friends. Make enemies. Make your name.

This evening marks the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2016 election cycle, and everybody’s got their assignment. Here’s what we’re expecting, in order of poll position:

Hillary Clinton

The national front-runner is trying to maintain her strength as the Democratic favorite, but balance-of-power politics say that everyone will gang up on her. The real question is, how hard will they hit? Measured criticism is one thing, but will anyone go scorched earth on the former Secretary of State? The added challenge for Clinton is that she’d like to win over voters who back her opponents. Punching down isn’t a good look, so she faces the tricky task of demeaning her opponents without turning off their supporters. Most of her harsh words will be reserved for Republicans.

Best-case scenario: She’s competent, calm, and we’ve forgotten this debate a week later. She has good responses when asked about her private e-mail server and foreign policy record in the Obama administration, and makes her rival Bernie Sanders seem silly without impugning his values. Did everyone notice I’m the only woman up here?

Worst-case scenario: Thirty minutes of discussion about her e-mail server ends in her and Sanders in a shouting match over who cares more about American workers.

Bernie Sanders

The insurgent left-wing senator has taken the lead in New Hampshire primary polling and is catching up to Clinton in Iowa and nationally. His biggest strength is his unabashed progressivism, which plays well with the base of the party. But his biggest weakness is that few establishment Democrats take him seriously as a potential president. Sanders needs to find a way to burnish his gravitas without turning off the supporters who appreciate his tell-it-like-it-is style.

Best-case scenario: He dings Clinton for her slippery position on trade and reminds everyone of her deep connections to the financial industry without going into full conspiracy mode. His arguments about inequality are more wonky than strident, and he says something about Russia’s role in Syria that makes people happier about putting a 75 year-old man in charge of the US nuclear arsenal.

Worst-case scenario: Most of his time spent explaining whether and how much of his economic plan is “socialist” and why his record on gun control—largely against it—is decidedly not in line with what mainstream Democrats support.

Martin O’Malley

The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor is running behind both of the front-runners in his home state, and despite a head start, has thus far been unable to carve out a spot for himself as the anti-Hillary. Too close to the establishment to beat Bernie Sanders on the left, he’s also been unable to unseat Clinton with arguments about electability or his record as an executive. He needs to say something at this debate that makes someone—anyone—stand up and take notice of his campaign.

Best-case scenario: Everyone walks away thinking that Clinton has too much baggage and that Sanders is too far left. What about O’Malley? He seemed smart.

Worst-case scenario: O’Malley who?

Jim Webb

The centrist former Virginia Senator throws his hat into the ring as the Southern white guy candidate. Literally. He’s made the case against taking down Confederate flags from public places. The former Marine and Reagan-era defense official also stakes a claim as the foreign policy expert on stage, and will surely mention that he opposed the Iraq war and Clinton didn’t. But despite concerns in the Democratic party about their shrinking share of the white male vote, Webb is battling against history in a party staking its future on a multi-ethnic voting coalition. It’s an uphill battle, yet Webb is nothing if not pugnacious.

Best-case scenario: No one mentions the Confederate flag. His economic populism rings true, and he makes Clinton and Sanders seem naive about foreign policy.

Worst-case scenario: Democratic primary voters watch Webb defend his position on the Confederate flag.

Lincoln Chaffee

The most improbable of presidential candidates, the veteran Rhode Island politician was a Republican as recently as 2007. His party switch was a recognition that the GOP had moved too far right for its erstwhile liberal wing, but Chaffee doesn’t have much of a base in his new party outside Rhode Island, where he is the scion of a local political dynasty. He’s putting himself forward as fiscally responsible dove who opposes foreign interventions and drone strikes while praising Edward Snowden.

Best-case scenario: His introduction to a national Democratic audience leaves people wanting to know more about this Chaffee guy.

Worst-case scenario: He’s the other bland white guy.

Joe Biden?

CNN is reportedly keeping a podium ready for the Hamlet-like Vice President, but that’s probably a ratings stunt. Jumping into the race (and the debate) at the last minute would dominate media coverage and make a huge splash, but if he isn’t thoroughly prepared, Biden’s famously loose lips could put him in trouble right out the gate. He’ll probably make a decision to run after his team assesses Clinton’s performance. But Biden is a good debater, as he showed with the thorough pasting he gave Representative Paul Ryan during the 2012 VP debate, and the ultimate wild card.

Best-case scenario: Where has this guy been? He’s funny, natural and in command of the issues. Four more years!

Worst-case scenario: He curses, makes an (accidental?) ethnic joke or has to answer for a recently-resurfaced 1974 interview where he said ”I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”