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Democratic debate is breakout chance for candidates

Catherine Lucey
Associated Press

Des Moines, Iowa – — Stuck far behind Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Martin O’Malley needs a breakout moment in the party’s first debate to catch up to the front-runners.

And he knows it.

“This will really be the first time that nationally voters see that there’s more than one alternative to this year’s inevitable front-runner, Secretary Clinton,” O’Malley said.

Tonight’s two-hour debate at the Wynn Las Vegas, airing on CNN starting at 9, will feature the five Democratic candidates who received at least 1 percent in a trio of national polls within the last six weeks.

“It’s a very, very important opportunity for me to not only present my vision for where the country should head, but also 15 years of executive experience, actually accomplishing the progressive things some of the other candidates can only talk about,” O’Malley said.

The former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore got into the race at the end of May, after telegraphing for some time his plans to seek the White House in 2016. The entries of the two others who will be onstage Tuesday night, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, were surprises to most.

But all three have one thing in common — an inability so far to generate any of the enthusiasm among voters that has pushed Sanders into and kept Clinton at the top of the field. All three poll in low single digits in early preference surveys, well below even Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to say if he’ll make a late entry into the race.

O’Malley has been openly critical of the Democratic National Committee and the decision to hold six primary debates, with four scheduled in early primary states before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. He has mounted a push for the party to expand the number, even encouraging protests in front of Democratic Party headquarters.

The party hasn’t budged, but O’Malley is undaunted. He has campaigned aggressively in Iowa and New Hampshire, far more than Webb or Chafee. He is critical of Clinton for her recent shifts on policy issues, among them her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which he calls a “reversal.”

O’Malley also touts his executive experience in dealing with issues such as gun control, in which Sanders’ record matches more with his largely rural home state than his place in the race as a liberal firebrand promising political revolution.

“We have to draw contrasts,” O’Malley said. “I think we can do it in a respectful way.”

Trying to draw differences

Expect Chafee, the former senator and governor from Rhode Island, to go after Clinton for her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Chafee, at the time a Republican, opposed the invasion and he’s said Clinton’s support for the war, which she has more recently called a “mistake,” is at the center of his decision to run.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Virginia senator, has deep experience on military issues and foreign policy and has been critical of Clinton’s handling of the conflict in Libya. Last year he said the Obama administration’s unilateral decision to use military force in Libya was improper.

Neither Chafee nor Webb has campaigned as much as the others in the race, but the highly rated Republican debates have proven that a good night can lift a candidate. Carly Fiorina has emerged as a contender in the GOP race after two strong showings.

“Fiorina was a complete unknown. Jim could make a lot bigger jump than that. It depends how many people are watching the debates,” said David “Mudcat” Saunders, an informal adviser to Webb. “I’m thinking and hoping and praying by the end of the debate, people are looking at it like a three-horse race.”

Even if they don’t boost their own candidacies, less popular contenders can still have an impact on a debate stage. In an October 2007 debate, Clinton’s campaign was damaged by her vague answers on providing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Hopefuls want to stand out

Tom Henderson, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa, said damage to Clinton could be an “unintended consequence” as other candidates try to seize on their chance to stand out.

“The front-runner is usually going to be the target of the other debaters,” said Henderson, who has not publicly endorsed a candidate. “She could expect to get some tough questions from one of them on the stage.”

Clinton, 67, has been a solid favorite to win the Democratic nomination, in large part because of her strong support among women, Latinos and African-Americans, who make up much of the party base. For all the talk of discontent, 3 in 4 likely Democratic primary voters view Clinton positively, and the same number say they could see voting for her regardless of who they now support, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

But Sanders’ rise and Clinton’s struggle with controversies over her family’s philanthropic foundation and the use of a private email server as secretary of state have seeded deep doubts about the front-runner and raised questions about both her political durability and personal veracity.

That has encouraged Biden to seriously weigh a lightning entry into the race, a move that would instantly transform the contest from a race to catch Clinton into a brawl.

Liberals were urging CNN to add a left-leaning questioner to its panel at tonight’s debate of Democratic presidential candidates, saying it’s only fair because conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt participated in the network’s coverage of the second Republican debate last month.

Los Angeles Times contributed.