WASHINGTON - The five Democrats running for president will get their moment in the spotlight in the first Democratic candidates' debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas. The stakes will be high for all of them, but especially for frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her main challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Clinton has seen her once formidable advantage in the polls wither away as Sanders has struck a chord with liberal Democrats eager for an alternative to the former secretary of state. Looming over both of them is speculation about whether Vice President Joe Biden will enter the race, with a decision expected soon. Biden was invited to take part in the Las Vegas debate, but he declined.
Clinton seeks makeover
Clinton has been on a mission of late to improve her image, which has been battered by the controversy over her use of a private email while secretary of state. Some critics also have complained she is too controlled and often comes across as inauthentic.
During a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday, Clinton made an impassioned plea for more gun control measures in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at a community college in Oregon.
“So many of the parents of these precious children who were murdered have taken the unimaginable grief that they have been bearing and have tried to be the voices that we need to hear,” said Clinton, her voice quaking with emotion.
In recent weeks, Clinton has tried to tackle her image problems more directly. She apologized for using a private email account, and on Saturday used humor to try and soften her image with a cameo appearance on NBC’s sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”
Firing back at Republicans
Clinton issued a new campaign ad seizing on last week’s comments from Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that the special House committee investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, has been responsible for the drop in Clinton’s poll numbers. McCarthy later retracted the comment and expressed regret, but McCarthy’s comments are prominently displayed in the Clinton ad. Clinton testifies before the Benghazi committee on October 22.
Recent public opinion polls show many Democrats would be open to a candidacy by Vice President Biden.
“A lot of Democrats are uneasy about Clinton because of the email issue, and it evokes some of the old concerns about the Clinton’s and the degree to which they are targets of Republicans, the media and some of their own self-inflicted wounds,” said analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Next week's debate could offer Clinton an opportunity to ease the concerns of some Democrats who are worried about her decline in the polls.
“No party wants to just let someone walk to the nomination and they want choices,” said analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “It may not be that they are absolutely dissatisfied with Hillary Clinton, but do they want another look at someone? And they don’t want to just give it to her without the chance of some other significant figure being in the race.”
Sanders surges, Biden deliberates
Bernie Sanders also has a huge opportunity in the debate to expand on his message focused on income inequality. Sanders drew a huge crowd in Boston last weekend and even has reached out to conservative audiences like the students at Liberty University in Virginia.
“We live, and I hope most of you know this, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world," Sanders said. "But most Americans don’t know that because almost all of that wealth and income is going to the top one percent.”
Biden is expected to announce his decision soon and if he runs, analysts predict it could scramble the race. But Ornstein said it's also clear Biden is agonizing about his decision, after the death earlier this year of his son Beau.
"In the aftermath of a tragedy like losing a child, you are searching for meaning in your life and what you can do to advance that legacy, Ornstein said. "And you can imagine Biden first saying, ‘I just can’t do it emotionally right now’. But you could also imagine him saying, ‘this is the best way for me to continue the legacy left by my wonderful son Beau.”
The other three Democrats in next week’s debate are former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee.
The next Republican debate is scheduled for October 28 at the University of Colorado at Boulder.