How the Democratic candidates will try and break out of the pack in the first debate

The Democratic debate tonight is Hillary’s to lose – as is the entire election.  In spite of a barrage of negative press and some slippage in the polls, she is still comfortably ahead of the Democratic field in every aspect that matters.

Modern races for a party’s nomination for president have a familiar pattern.  With some exceptions, (such as 1988 when the field of Democratic candidates was known as the “seven dwarfs”) there is usually a frontrunner.  Frontrunners have name recognition, stature, money, and lots of political friends.  (Until Donald Trump came along they usually had extensive government experience as well.)

So in watching the debate tonight, Hillary needs to hold on to her frontrunner status and the others need to battle it out to be the alternative to Hillary. This is always tough; especially in a primary where, because everyone is in the same party, the differences between the candidates are subtle – not glaring.  Expect the candidates to go after Hillary and to go after each other as they vie to be the best alternative to her.

So how will they differentiate themselves?  Here are some issues to listen for.

Being the toughest cop on Wall Street

With most voters worried about jobs and with the memory of the recession fresh in everyone’s minds – especially those stuck in part-time jobs and those who have dropped out of the labor force – expect the candidates to try and prove that they will be the toughest cop on Wall Street.  Hillary got the jump on everyone with a speech earlier in the summer that attacked “short-termism” in the economy and she has recently put out more on how she’d rein in Wall Street.  But both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have advocated reinstating Glass-Steagall, the depression era legislation that separated investment banking and commercial banking.  This puts Hillary in a difficult spot because Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 during her husband’s administration.

Opposing new trade deals  

President Clinton was known for passage of two very important trade deals – NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and a deal granting China MFN (most favored nation) status.  Even in the 1990s Democrats weren’t wild about trade agreements due to strong opposition from organized labor.  But in the wake of the recession the Democratic base is even more opposed to trade deals.  Recently Hillary Clinton changed her position to oppose the newest trade deal TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).  Already she is under attack for taking a politically expedient position on a deal she helped birth.  She will likely get it from all sides on this one.

Being the toughest on gun control 

Hillary isn’t the only candidate changing positions in the run up to the first debate.  Bernie Sanders has had an incredible and unexpectedly strong pre-season.  He speaks authentically and fiercely to the Democratic base.  But even he has an Achilles heel.  Having represented Vermont, a largely rural state, for many years, Sanders is out of step with the rest of his party on gun control issues.  In 2005 he supported legislation protecting gun manufacturers from civil liability suits and yesterday he reversed his stance – just in time.

Keeping us out of foreign entanglements 

In supporting a “no-fly” zone over Syria, Hillary Clinton is positioned as the most hawkish of the Democrats compared to both O’Malley and Sanders.  Expect them to try and outdo each other in attempting to insinuate that Hillary Clinton and former President George W. Bush are more alike than meets the eye.

The best candidate for African-Americans  

The African American population is the strongest part of the Democratic Party coalition.  They make up a disproportionate piece of the Democratic vote in all federal elections and they make up an even bigger piece of the vote in Democratic primaries.  The African American population in the first two contests – Iowa and New Hampshire – is small.  But that’s not the case in the third and fourth contests – Nevada and South Carolina.  Look for Hillary to speak to this base and for the other candidates, especially Sanders (who has quite a good civil rights record) to try and increase his appeal to these critical voters.  So far, African-American voters in South Carolina are a “fire-wall” for Hillary against her strongest rival.

The Millennial Candidate 

Democrats know that to win in 2016 they need to reconstitute the Obama coalition.  And the most important thing about that coalition was the importance, in both 2008 and 2012 of young people, otherwise known as the large Millennial population.  Expect Martin O’Malley, an ex-Governor who plays in a rock band and who shows off his hip knowledge of rock and roll, to remind people that the party needs a generational facelift.  Hillary is about to turn 68.  Sanders just turned 74.  Jim Webb is 69 and Lincoln Chaffee is 62.  At age 52, O’Malley is by far the youngest candidate on the stage.  Expect him to try to appeal to voters on this topic one way or another.

Finally, attention will be paid to the potential candidate who is not on stage – Vice President Joe Biden.  If he gets into the race he would have to support the Obama Administration on most everything and that could make the next debate even more interesting.