By Anita Kumar, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton takes the debate stage for the first time in this campaign Tuesday night to face four rivals looking for something — anything — to knock down her lead in the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
Clinton must use the debate to explain her rationale for her second candidacy for the White House or risk seeing her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, stealing her front-runner status, which already has eroded in part because of the inquiries into her use of personal email for government business.
The two-hour debate at the Wynn Las Vegas, airing on CNN starting at 9 p.m. EDT, will feature the five Democratic candidates who received at least 1 percent in a trio of national polls within the last six weeks. Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a run, will not participate.
Here’s what to look for.
How does Clinton relate?
The former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady has been trying throughout the campaign to show she can relate to working American families after years of being criticized as an out-of-touch Washington insider garnering hefty paychecks for speeches and books.
With recent polls showing an increasing number of voters do not trust her or believe she understands their problems, it’s clear she has more work to do to show them that she’s not forgotten her middle-class, Middle America sensibilities. Just last week, she poked fun at herself on “Saturday Night Live.”
Will Clinton be able to articulate a softer side by speaking about herself, her family or those she has met on the campaign trail, or will she continue to appear overly cautious and inaccessible?
Does Sanders look like a protester or a president?
Sanders has drawn massive crowds and millions of dollars by being a champion of the underpaid, overworked American worker. The 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist boasts a passionate following — which engages in enthusiastic tweets that use the hashtag FeeltheBern — but he isn’t well known for much more than blasting what he calls the “billionaire class.”
For Sanders to be seriously considered, he needs for potential voters outside the early states to get to know him better.
Will he use the debate to speak confidently about a host of other policy issues — foreign and domestic — and explain how he would govern as a president?
Who are those other guys?
The three remaining candidates — former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb — have one goal: Get noticed.
Each is garnering less than 2 percent in most national polls behind Clinton, Sanders and Biden, who isn’t even a candidate. Some people do not know who they are.
Will any of the trio get attention by attacking Clinton or Sanders, making a joke or delivering a memorable one liner? Webb and Chafee have struggled to serve as attack dogs in previous joint appearances. O’Malley has not hesitated to criticize his opponents, particularly Clinton, but he has not managed to move the polls.
Will the five candidates differ on the issues?
Unlike the Republicans running for president, the Democratic candidates haven’t distinguished themselves from each other on many of the main issues. They’ve focused on attacking the other party instead of each other.
For the most part, but not in all cases, they want to raise the minimum wage, lower college costs, get rid of unaccountable money in politics and support a deal with Iran that would curb the country’s nuclear program. Their central messages have largely focused on tackling income inequality and lifting the middle class.
Will they try to use the first debate to set themselves apart from one other and contrast the ways they would govern?
(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Democratic presidential candidate, delivers remarks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute presidential candidates forum in Washington, October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst