Hillary Clinton will try to re-establish her status as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination tonight in a debate with Bernie Sanders, who is seeking to demonstrate his democratic socialist platform has broad enough appeal for him to win a national election.
The former secretary of state and the Vermont senator have spent the past two days intensely preparing for the PBS NewsHour debate in Milwaukee, their first encounter since Sanders crushed Clinton by 22 percentage points in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
They carry into the debate, srunning squabbles over the influence of corporations and wealthy donors on the political process and Clinton’s ties to Wall Street; Sanders’ ability to make good on his promises of universal, single-payer health care and free college tuition; and which of them is best in position to carry on and extend President Barack Obama's agenda. Clinton also has been hitting Sanders on his foreign policy and national security credentials.
“She needs to use her biography and accomplishments to give credibility to the things she wants to do now," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Barack Obama. Sanders “needs to take his cause and message and start filling in his blanks to make it credible that he is the person who can do these things.”
Their sixth debate comes as the two candidates are positioning themselves for the next two nominating contests: the Feb. 20 Nevada caucuses in which union members, Hispanics and cash-strapped homeowners are key constituencies and the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary in which black voters hold considerable sway.
Sanders, who came within a fraction of a point of Clinton in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, won in New Hampshire by collecting majorities among most voter demographic groups other than wealthy Democrats and people over age 65. But his message hasn’t been tested in states that have far more diverse Democratic electorates than those two states.
Hours before the debate, the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee endorsed Clinton, who along with her husband has spent decades building ties in the black community. Some black lawmakers are seeking to close ranks around Clinton as Sanders, who represents a mostly white state, tries to make inroads with minority voters in part by talking about his time protesting segregated housing at the University of Chicago.
Clinton’s support among black elected officials isn’t monolithic, however. Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, dismissed Sanders’ role in the equal rights movement. Representative James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, has not yet endorsed a candidate. Another black Democrat, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, has endorsed Sanders.
"We expect Senator Sanders to go in there and again make his case to the American people and again hold his own, because he has demonstrated he can," his press secretary Symone Sanders said before the debate. “He’s looking forward to having a robust discussion on the issues, because that’s what this election is about.”
Before the first votes were cast in the nomination race, Clinton was widely seen as the inevitable Democratic candidate for the 2016 general election. But the margins in the first two contests have fueled an online fundraising boom for Sanders and stirred concerns about Clinton’s weaknesses.
Despite the competitiveness of the race, and Sanders’ contention that he’ll energize enough new voters that Congress will be compelled to go along with his agenda, signs of Democratic enthusiasm for both candidates has been scant so far. Democratic turnout in Iowa was down 28 percent from 2008, when Obama first ran. It was down 13 percent in Iowa. Meanwhile, Republican voter turnout broke records in both states.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in an interview on CNN Thursday that the race could drag on all the way to the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
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