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Democratic debate will stream free on CNN, no password needed

Hillary Rodham ClintonHillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonPhotograph by Jim Mone — AP

Hillary is preparing. Bernie Sanders is not preparing. And CNN host Anderson Cooper is getting ready just in case Vice President Joe Biden jumps into the first Democratic Presidential debate at the last minute (update: Biden is sitting it out).

For political junkies, the good news is that anyone with an internet connection will able to watch the debate, which will run on Tuesday from 9pm to 11pm ET (coverage starts at 8:30). CNN (TWX) confirmed it will not require online viewers to provide a cable password in order to access the live stream on desktop or a mobile device.

“All users will be able to watch live CNN TV online and on their mobile devices without logging in … The CNN live stream will be available on CNN.com’s Home Page and across its mobile platforms,” the network announced.

The network’s decision is significant in part because large scale live streaming can pose a technical challenge. Fox News, for instance, botched its live stream during the first GOP debate despite limiting online access to those with cable passwords.

CNN, however, is confident it can handle the volume. According to a spokesperson, when CNN showed a GOP debate in September, 4.5 million people accessed the live stream at some point with no technical problems, and 921,000 did so concurrently. (You can compare that to Superbowl XLIX, when NBC had a record 1.3 million concurrent online viewers, but also drew criticism over its lousy streaming performance).

The decision to live stream also poses a strategic dilemma for CNN and others since, at a time when more people are cord-cutting, online access may reinforce a notion that cable channels are becoming superfluous.

As for the debate itself, the event is likely to be tame compared to the 10-person extravaganzas that marked the first two Republican debates. There are only five confirmed candidates for the Democrats: front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders plus the second-tier trio of Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee and Martin O’Malley. Meanwhile, Sanders has already vowed he will not engage in personal attacks. And, of course, there will be no Donald Trump on the stage. (If you get bored, here are the drinking game rules).

For now, the biggest drama surrounding the Democratic debate is if and when Vice President Joe Biden will announce his own candidacy for the party nomination. If he does, CNN will allow him to sign up for the stage as late as the day of the debate. (On Tuesday afternoon, Biden said he will watch from Washington).