A developing feud between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns may add some edge to the debate.
WASHINGTON — A developing feud may make the Democratic presidential debate Saturday night a lot more interesting.
Hillary Clinton is still looking to maintain her strong national lead among Democrats six weeks before the first nominating contest of the 2016 presidential election.
But her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has made significant gains in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state and the debate’s location. On Thursday, he scored two big endorsements, from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America union and Democracy for America, a progressive political-action committee founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Friday, the Sanders campaign sued the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for preventing his campaign from using its crucial voter database, which he thinks is part of the national party’s desire to smooth the path for Clinton. The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, accused the Sanders campaign of stealing millions of dollars worth of information about potential voters.
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The two-hour debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., will air on ABC starting at 6 p.m. PST. It will feature Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor.
Here’s what to look for:
THE DNC VERSUS SANDERS
The DNC cut off Sanders’ access to its campaign database Friday, a potentially crippling move in the age of digital campaigning.
The DNC made the move after its own vendor accidentally allowed Sanders campaign access to Clinton information. The Sanders campaign fired a staffer who did access the information, but it said the party was to blame for dropping its firewall and that the party cutoff would unfairly damage Sanders.
“This is unacceptable,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign — one of the strongest grass-roots campaigns in modern history.”
Sanders and O’Malley have accused the DNC for months of eagerly, if quietly, trying to make it easier for Clinton to secure the nomination. The senator and O’Malley will have to determine how far they are willing to go in criticizing Clinton in this debate.
SAN BERNARDINO attack
This will be the candidates’ first faceoff since the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., left 14 people dead two weeks ago, raising fears of terrorism at home. That’s likely to change the tone of this debate, as the Paris terrorist attacks did the second debate.
The candidates will be questioned about gun control and the global fight against militant Islamic movements.
Sanders, who generally does not favor international intervention, is critical of Clinton’s hawkish tendencies on national security, including her vote in 2003 to authorize military force in Iraq, which she later came to regret.
Clinton reserves her rare criticism for Sanders on gun control, singling out his moderate record, which includes opposition to the 1993 Brady bill, which established federal background checks and a waiting period for potential gun owners.
He loves to talk about lifting up the middle class, to blast the so-called billionaire class and to tout the newly popular issue of income inequality.
After he was asked to share his thoughts on the terrorist attack in Paris at the second debate last month, Sanders uttered a mere two sentences on terrorism — totaling about 20 seconds — before quickly switching back to his standard stump speech.
But for Sanders to be considered a serious contender by more Democrats, he’s going to have to show he’s well-versed and comfortable with other policy issues, foreign and domestic. His performance Saturday will indicate whether he has learned that lesson.
“NOT GOOD ENOUGH”
When Sanders was asked last month what he thought of Clinton’s plan to rein in Wall Street, he said: “Not good enough.” When O’Malley was asked this month about Sanders’ plan to combat climate change, he said: “Not good enough.”
In a contest where the candidates are often indistinguishable on policy, they must find a way to explain how they differ from their rivals, even if it’s more about nuance than actual disagreements.
Unlike the Republicans running for president, the Democrats largely agree on major domestic issues, including economic policy, criminal justice and civil rights. The most voters might hear from these candidates are phrases such as “not good enough” as they try to set themselves apart from one another on records and policies.