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6 things to watch at the Iowa Democratic debate


You still need a scorecard to follow all the Republican presidential candidates, even after their fourth debate this week was narrowed to eight hopefuls at the main event; four more were relegated to the undercard. The Democratic field, in contrast, has fewer contenders (three), a clearer front-runner (Hillary Clinton) and less dramatic ideological fissures on issues such as immigration and taxes.

That said, the second Democratic debate in Des Moines on Saturday is a prime opportunity for Hillary Clinton to solidify her front-runner status and for her chief challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to regain some of the momentum he’s lost. It’s also a chance for former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, whose support barely registers in the polls, to break through.

Here are six things to watch at the debate, which is sponsored by The Des Moines Register, CBS News and KCCI-TV.

1. Who sets the tone?

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and former Martin O'Malley talk backstage before the start of the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall, AP)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and former Martin O’Malley talk backstage before the start of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall, AP)

Bernie Sanders has been more aggressive on the stump toward Hillary Clinton lately, but she has continued to be largely deferential toward him, focusing most of her fire on Republicans. That’s because Sanders needs Clinton to falter if he’s to gain ground, while Clinton wants to avoid any scars that might prevent the Vermont senator and his supporters from backing her as the nominee with enthusiasm. Does moderator John Dickerson force either candidate to get off-message?

2. Is Bernie Sanders still sick and tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails?

Bernie Sanders takes part in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015. (Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders takes part in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015.
(Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

His declaration to that effect at the first debate brought a relieved laugh and a handshake from Clinton. But since then, the Vermont senator has said in interviews that federal agencies are pursuing “valid questions” about her exclusive use of a private email server when she was secretary of State, including whether classified information was compromised. “I did not say ‘end the investigation,’” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Let the investigation proceed unimpeded.”

3. Who are you calling a Democrat?

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow acknowledge the crowd after a Democratic forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on Nov. 6, 2015. (Chuck Burton, AP)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledge the crowd after a Democratic forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on Nov. 6, 2015. (Chuck Burton, AP)

At a candidates’ forum in South Carolina last Friday, moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Clinton and Martin O’Malley emphasized that they are true Democrats — an implicit contrast to Sanders, who has long described himself as a Democratic socialist. His rivals may try to raise that issue again. A Marist/McClatchy Poll released this week found 50% of voters nationwide said they definitely would vote against a Socialist for president. Even among liberal Democrats, only 39% said they definitely would be willing to vote for one.

4. Is it hawk vs. dove?

Hillary Clinton is introduced at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton is introduced at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Both Clinton and Sanders talk more about economic than foreign policy, but the differences between them are wider on national security. That’s especially the case since Clinton has moved left to oppose construction of the Keystone pipeline and approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. As secretary of State, Clinton urged President Obama to undertake stronger military action in Syria and Libya, and as a U.S. senator she voted to authorize the war in Iraq, though she has since called that decision a mistake. In contrast, during the Vietnam War, Sanders applied for conscientious objector status. She could argue that makes him an odd choice to serve as commander in chief; he could argue she would be more likely to get the United States involved in war.

5.Which Republican contender does Clinton target?

Marco, Rubio, Donald Trump and Ben Carson take part in the Milwaukee GOP debate on Nov. 10, 2015. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Marco, Rubio, Donald Trump and Ben Carson take part in the Milwaukee GOP debate on Nov. 10, 2015. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

That will tell you whom her team believes is going to win the messy GOP contest. There was a time when she was directing her scorn mostly at former Florida governor Jeb Bush, but that was when he was expected to lead the field. While Donald Trump and Ben Carson continue to top the polls, the conventional wisdom now views Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as the most likely finalists for the nomination. Do her barbs indicate that she agrees?

6. Who’s this Martin O’Malley, again?

Martin O'Malley rallies supporters outside the Iowa Events Center before the start of the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Martin O’Malley rallies supporters outside the Iowa Events Center before the start of the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

The former two-term governor of Maryland has had little success in breaking through, at least so far. The debate gives him one more chance to make an impression. He’s struggled to register in national polls, although a CBS News/New York Times Poll out this week put him at a new high: 5%. The debate “may be Gov. O’Malley’s Waterloo moment,” says Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.



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