The Democratic presidential hopefuls will meet in Iowa on Saturday night for their second—of only six—official primary debates. The prime-time lineup has winnowed to three since the first debate now that Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb have both called it quits.*
Here’s a look at what each of the three remaining Democratic hopefuls need to do in Des Moines:
What Hillary Needs to Do: Not Blow It
The past month couldn’t have gone much better for Clinton. She delivered a surprisingly stellar performance in the first debate on Oct. 13, watched as Joe Biden officially closed the door on a late challenge on Oct. 21, and sailed through a daylong appearance before the GOP-led House Benghazi panel the following day. With those potential hurdles now behind her, the former secretary of state’s debate strategy probably looks something like this: Just don’t blow it.
Clinton was unexpectedly aggressive during the previous debate, hitting Bernie Sanders hard early on his voting history on gun control (a specific attack she cleverly laid the foundation for a few weeks earlier). She’s a stronger debater than she often gets credit for, and she could look to press her advantage again in Des Moines, Iowa. Still, she has good reasons to play it safe this time around. For one, she’s lost the element of surprise. As my colleague Jim Newell noted last week, Sanders has finally found a way to frame his gun record in a slightly more favorable light, and he’s not going to be caught flat-footed a second time. The bigger reason for caution, though, is Clinton doesn’t need to steady the ship as she did in Las Vegas, she simply needs to sail straight ahead.
She showed up in Las Vegas after a bumpy summer that saw her poll numbers dip; she’ll arrive in Des Moines on the rise. Since the first debate, her average lead in national surveys has inched up more than 3 points to 21.6 points on Sanders, and her overall support has climbed nearly 11 points to 54 percent—the first time she’s been the top choice of a clear majority of Democrats since the summer. More important is her standing in the states that will hold 2016’s first three nominating contests. In Iowa, her lead on Bernie has doubled to 24 points since the first debate. In New Hampshire, where Sanders is strongest, she’s closed the gap on Bernie from 9 points to a little more than 1 point. And in South Carolina, she’s seen her formidable 28-point advantage on Bernie climb to a monstrous 48 points.
What Bernie Needs to Do: Decide
Clinton helped herself more than anyone in the first debate, but Sanders did plenty to advance his own cause. The Vermont senator was, as my colleague Michelle Goldberg noted, the one who set the terms of the debate, putting capitalism on the defensive during an event being held by one of the country’s two major political parties in Las Vegas. For a man calling for a “political revolution,” that’s an undeniable win.
We’re getting to the point, though, where Sanders needs to decide if he wants more than moral victories. He can continue on his current policy-only path, knowing that even if—or more likely when—his long-shot campaign falls short, he’ll have at least pulled Clinton leftward. Or he can risk his particular no-nonsense brand and the leverage that comes with it by taking direct aim at Hillary in hopes of knocking her down. There have been hints that Sanders is finally ready to take some swings, but so far he’s stopped short of crossing that line. Given how hungry the political press corps is for conflict, if Bernie does attack on Saturday night, it would likely be the lead story on Sunday morning.
In the meantime, the Bernie-mentum we saw this summer has slowed considerably. Most troubling for his campaign is that he’s losing serious ground in Iowa and struggling to hold on to his advantage in New Hampshire. As the establishment favorite, Clinton can afford to lose one of those contests to start 2016, and maybe even both of them (especially given her massive advantage in South Carolina). As the insurgent, though, Bernie needs at least one of those states to keep the contest from turning into a coronation. This debate won’t be his final chance to choose between cause and candidacy—but after Saturday there will be only two more debates before the contest officially kicks off in Iowa.
What Martin Needs to Do: Get Noticed
Things are way more dire for Martin O’Malley. He is stuck in the low single-digits both nationally and in the early voting states and has been little more than a guitar-playing afterthought in a race being dominated by his two more popular rivals.
He needs to steal at least a sliver of the spotlight on Saturday. The good news is with two fewer candidates on stage, he’ll have a few more chances to do that. The bad news, though, is that he’s Martin O’Malley. The closest thing he’s had to a “moment” all year was when he stood up at the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee and demanded more debates. Meanwhile, Sanders has overshadowed him when it comes to policy, and Clinton has done the same when it comes to political résumés. Yes, he looks and sounds like a candidate out of central casting, but that isn’t exactly a good thing given the anti-politician headwinds blowing across the country.
O’Malley may be running out of time, too. The former Maryland governor finished September with less than $1 million in his campaign account and, unless he finds pay dirt soon, it’s going to be a challenge to keep the lights on. Dig into his fundraising numbers, and that challenge gets even more difficult. Of the $3.2 million he’s raised so far this year, only 8 percent came from small donations of $200 or less. That suggests that many of those relatively few people who have cut checks to his campaign have already hit their contribution limit. O’Malley, then, needs to win new friends and fans, and to do it quickly. Given how little coverage he gets on an average day, debates are his best—perhaps only—chance to make that happen.
*Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: This post originally misspelled Lincoln Chafee’s last name.