Democratic Debate Preview

There are two incredibly important debates scheduled between now and the next time voters head to the polls to cast their votes for the Democrat they feel would best represent the party in the General Election, and one of those debates is tonight.

The stakes in these two debates really couldn’t be higher, and with so much riding on the line, it’s going to be interesting to see how both Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton will hold up.

The number one reason why these two debates are so important is of course because we are quickly approaching on the two states that will ultimately serve as Clinton’s last stand.  Even former president Bill Clinton has said that he doesn’t think Hillary will win the nomination should she lose Texas.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ground game is going to get it done for the junior Senator from New York; thus far polls in just about every contest has shown that the more exposure Obama gets in a state, the faster his polling numbers go up.  Adding to this urgency is the fact that due to Texas’ unusual delegate selection process, experts have estimated that Clinton may have to win as much if not more as 60% of the popular vote just to win a majority of delegates.

This informs the urgency of the debates for Hillary Clinton.  She has to find a way to stop not only the momentum that Obama has accrued over eleven straight wins (he won also the Democrats abroad primary today), but she has to find a way to counteract the phenomenon of rapidly rising poll numbers for him the moment he starts campaigning in a state.

As for Obama, he has just recently emerged as the frontrunner while the Clinton campaign is currently flailing.  The last thing he needs right now is a swift reversal of fortunes at this point.  He’s by far got the clearest path to the nomination, but a fatal failure tonight or Tuesday could be enough to trigger mass support flowing the other direction.  On the other hand, landing a knockout tonight or Tuesday could seal the deal.

How will the two candidates approach tonight’s debate?

It’s interesting to look at given there’s another debate in five days.  Also, it should not be forgotten that tonight’s debate will also be broadcast on Univision.  For this latter reason, expect both candidates to do at least a little pandering to the Latino community.

The pitfalls here are obvious though.  Immigration has tripped both candidates up during debates, much more so for Hillary than Obama.  I’ll be interested to see how Hillary contends with the question that initiated her downward spiral should it come up again.

In general, though, the first question I want answered is how do the candidates factor in almost back to back debates?  I see it going one of two ways, either they see tonight as kind of a warm up and merely feel each other out for the hour and a half, or they go straight for the kill.  I can’t make a bet either way, but I can definitely see Hillary especially possibly holding back in this debate, trying to play nice, let her internal polls measure the effectiveness of such a tactic, and adjusting for Tuesday’s debate.

For Obama, I think his strategy should remain essentially the same either way.

And what are those strategies?

For Clinton it’s pretty easy.  If she has no interest in taking the high road, we’ll know tonight.  The more mired her campaign gets, the harder she seems to hit, and I don’t think we’re going to see the same kind of cordiality tonight that we saw in the last debate.  She’s going to go after him on anything she can, bringing up healthcare, bringing up the Commander in Chief attack she’s begun employing, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if she brings up the plagiarism charge either.  For her, the name of the game is offense offense offense, and try and get Obama to commit the huge gaffe.

For Obama, he could play the offense game himself, there’s more than enough ammo, but I think the winning strategy here is to stay calm, and keep his composure.  Hillary’s going to attack, and he should maintain an unflappable poise and deflect those attacks deftly and quickly.  The goal for him should not be attack attack attack, but instead weather the storm and see if he can’t get Hillary to lose her composure.  One pattern that I’ve noticed this primary season is that Hillary doesn’t do well when people think she’s going on the attack unfairly, and that should be Obama’s aim tonight; let her hang herself on her own rope.

You simply can’t do that if you let yourself get too deep in it with her.

This is, of course, assuming that the candidates don’t both elect to keep it civil tonight as I mentioned above.

The debate starts at 8pm EST tonight, airs on CNN, and is being broadcast live on CNN.com.  I should be here liveblogging it assuming we don’t have technical difficulties, so I’ll see you there!

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