The three leading Democratic presidential candidates gather for their second debate in Des Moines, Iowa tonight under the pall of the Paris terrorist attacks. That the event would go forward was in question into Friday evening, until CBS, which is hosting, and the Democratic National Committee both confirmed it. There’s no formal theme to the debate, though moderator John Dickerson had signaled economic issues would take centerstage. How far CBS goes to reorder the focus in the wake of the attacks isn’t clear, but Steve Capus, the network’s news chief, on Friday tweeted the massacre “require[s] important questions for the candidates.”
The Democratic field itself may be stabler than the format: As opposed to a still-roiling Republican contest, the race is now Clinton’s to lose. She’s padded her lead by about 11 points since the last debate, placing her in a commanding position two and a half months before the Iowa caucus that kicks off the primary. Here’s what we’ll be watching for tonight:
Do the candidates clash on foreign policy in the wake of the attacks?
During President Obama’s first term, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued, unsuccessfully, for the administration to launch more muscular response to the chaos engulfing Syria and Libya. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders throughout his career has taken a distinctly dovish approach. Unlike Clinton, he opposed authorizing the Iraq war, and he has said he only believes the U.S. should provide a supporting role behind a coalition of Arab countries in Syria. The attacks in Paris could throw those differences into sharper relief.
Which Bernie Sanders shows up?
In their first debate a month ago, Sanders delivered Clinton a gift by declaring that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” At the time, it seemed Clinton’s chief rival had absolved her of some liability for the controversy over her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Since, he’s recast it, telling the Wall Street Journal there are “valid questions” about the practice and the federal investigation into it should “proceed unimpeded.” That’s squared with a candidate seemingly keener on drawing distinctions with the frontrunner.
Does O’Malley break through?
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, flirting with obsolescence in the polls, is running out of time to demonstrate he offers a viable alternative for those Democratic voters otherwise unhappy with their options. His bid is in existential need of a breakout moment (or two). That sort of neediness spawns backfires as often as not, casting O’Malley as an unknown variable.