Unlike the previous three-ring circuses put on by the Republicans, tonight’s debate will only have five candidates. More importantly, with so few candidates, there is little need for the candidates to go after each other at this point of the race. Rather, what each candidate needs to accomplish in this debate has very little to do with the other candidates. With that said, here is my take on what the candidate’s goals need to be heading into the debate.
For the pack (Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and Martin O’Malley), they need to establish a reason for voters to support them. Of the three, I think Martin O’Malley starts in the best position. Secretary Clinton currently is the default of the centrist/left-of-center wing of the party. This group liked President Clinton’s policy and (for the most part) ended up supporting Secretary Clinton in 2008. What this group does not like is the Clinton’s tendency to pick up baggage for personal issues. If Governor O’Malley can demonstrate that he is competent and roughly similar to Secretary Clinton on policy grounds, then he might be able to wedge away those who are tired of waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee have the harder ground to wage. For Jim Webb, his goal is to establish himself as a more moderate alternative to the other candidates. His problem is that he might have already done so. There just might not be enough conservative, right of center Democrats to be a competitive candidate by trying to outflank Secretary Clinton to her right. Lincoln Chafee has to decide which way he wants to outflank Bernie Sanders. There probably is not enough room to Senator Sanders left for a viable candidate. Additionally, even trying to be a slightly more moderate version of Senator Sanders, Senator Chafee may find that he is too late to the dance. The progressive wing has found their candidate, and is not looking for an alternative.
For Senator Sanders, the goal is to keep the true believers satisfied while letting moderates know that he is not the next-coming of George McGovern or Mike Dukakis. He also needs to find a way to convince voters of color that he gets their issues. He does not need to win either of these two groups, but he does need to narrow the margin that Secretary Clinton has with these two groups. (Particularly for the moderates, he needs to convince them that they can afford to take the chance to look for other candidates as his getting the nomination would not be a disaster. If moderates remain convinced that nominating Bernie Sanders is the best way to lose the general election, they have little choice but to stick to Secretary Clinton like glue).
Secretary Clinton needs to convincingly put the personal issues to bed. (Easier said than done.) She has a solid base of support (close to a majority according to the latest polling) and just needs to put her supporters’ minds at ease.
For Vice-President Biden, by not being there, he needs the other five candidates to fail. He needs Governor O’Malley to fail to step up as the establishment alternative to Secretary Clinton. He needs Senator Sanders to come across as too liberal to win a general election. He needs Secretary Clinton to come across as a policy wonk who is tone deaf about how appearances of impropriety matter to independent voters. Only then would there be room for Vice-President Biden as the establishment alternative.
As stated at the start, none of these goals require the Democratic candidates to tear each other down (unless the debate is not going well). That doesn’t mean that the candidates will be able to resist the advice of handlers who believe that the best strategy is to go negative. While sometimes it is, that is not the case tonight.