LAS VEGAS: Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton will finally square off Tuesday with top rival Bernie Sanders in the party’s first debate of the 2016 campaign as she seeks to prove she is the candidate to beat.
Clinton will take center stage in Las Vegas with Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who has drawn huge crowds on the campaign trail, and three other hopefuls seeking to make their mark with a national audience.
Vice President Joe Biden has been mulling a run for months, and is the wild card of the Democratic race. But he has not announced his decision and is not expected to participate in the debate, which starts in Sin City at about 6:00 pm (0100 GMT Wednesday).
The spotlight therefore is likely to be on Clinton and Sanders. She wants to inject some excitement into her campaign and show she can rally the Democratic base from now into next year, while he must test whether his “political revolution” can translate to the national stage.
While there is unlikely to be a dramatic clash of personalities as seen in the first two Republican debates, the 67-year-old former secretary of state will no doubt face pressure from the upstart senator in their much-anticipated encounter.
The other three challengers — former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, ex-senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee — will try to generate breakout moments to show they are electable alternatives to Clinton.
Nearly eight years removed from her campaign clashes with ultimate White House winner Barack Obama, Clinton can still display a firm grasp of the issues — and is likely to expand on her policy prescriptions.
“Tonight I’ll walk on stage at the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas and present our plans and ideas for this country — the same plans and ideas I’ve been talking about with Americans every day since we launched this campaign,” Clinton told supporters in a fundraising email early Tuesday.
Besides focusing on headline proposals such as gun control, healthcare or regulating Wall Street, Clinton will want to prove that she can be the first woman to win the White House, despite a recent downward trend in her poll numbers.
Clinton still leads nationally in polls, but she trails Sanders by nearly 10 points in New Hampshire and holds only a modest lead in Iowa. Both are key early-voting states in the nomination process, setting momentum for the rest of the primary race.
Her lead increases in debate state Nevada, where her support has reached 50 percent compared to 34 percent for Sanders and 12 percent for Biden, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday.
While Clinton still elicits more unfavorable than favorable reactions among US adults (49 percent to 47 percent), she is far more popular than Sanders among Democrats, who view her favorably by 79 to 19 percent, compared to Sanders’ 47-24 percent split, a Washington Post-ABC News poll out Tuesday shows.
For 74-year-old Sanders, a rumpled, self-declared democratic socialist, Tuesday will be the biggest test of his decades-long political career.
Clinton has rarely mentioned Sanders on the campaign trail, but they will be standing a few feet apart on the stage.
While Sanders said he is unlikely to level “personal attacks,” he suggested he will hit Clinton on her recent position shifts, including her opposition to the Keystone oil pipeline and a huge Pacific Rim trade deal that she supported on multiple trips to Asia.
“People will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations with the secretary,” Sanders told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Sanders may point to his 2002 vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq sought by George W. Bush, which Clinton voted for.
Seeking her own opening, Clinton might use her rival’s moderate position on guns — Sanders hails from Vermont, a rural state with few firearm restrictions — to highlight an area where liberals who seek tighter gun laws break with Sanders.
Sanders casts himself as the anti-billionaire candidate intent on reshaping an economic system he says rewards the wealthiest Americans while leaving millions mired in poverty.
Clinton will likely face questions about her using a private email account and server while secretary of state, an issue that has dogged her for months, although Republicans have been far more aggressive in attacking her over the scandal than have Democrats.
Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner and brash billionaire who stole the show at his party’s first debate in August, will not be on the Democratic stage, but he nonetheless found a way to inject himself into Tuesday’s proceedings.