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7 questions for the first Democratic debate

It's the most important night of the 2016 Democratic primary thus far. Here's what you need to know.

LAS VEGAS – Almost three years after a super PAC formed to try to draft Hillary Clinton into the 2016 presidential race, the former secretary of state will finally face off against her Democratic opponents in the party’s first presidential debate here Tuesday night.

Clinton enters the race weaker than many expected she would be not long ago, trailing insurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire and with the looming threat of Vice President Joe Biden jumping in the race.

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The debate, sponsored by CNN and set to kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, is the first of six scheduled for the Democrats and will feature five candidates. It will be the first time the candidates are put to the test in an unscripted setting.

How will they fare? Here are seven key questions:

1. Can Clinton live up to the expectations? Hillary Clinton is one of the most experienced presidential debaters in the Democratic Party, having gone 26 rounds with Barack Obama and the rest of an unusually strong field of challengers during the 2008 primary. Sanders has decades of experience as a debater in Vermont, but never on such a high level, never before an audience that doesn’t already know him, and never against an opponent as strong as Clinton.

But Clinton could suffer from the incumbent effect. Incumbent presidents almost always lose their first debate, and Clinton is the closest thing to an incumbent in this race. The first encounter will put challengers on the same plane as the former secretary of state, and she could suffer from expectations set impossibly high by the media and ever her own supporters. That means a win will gain her fewer points than it would for another candidate and a loss will cost her more.

2. How hard will Bernie Sanders go after Clinton? Clinton vs. Sanders is the battle royale in the Democratic Party today. Even though they agree on many policy areas, Sanders and Clinton come at them from completely different world views and theories of change.

Sanders aides say they want their candidate to focus on introducing his message to a wider audience that may not know the Vermonter. And an avowed aversion to negative campaigning suggests he would avoid overt attacks on Clinton.

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But he and his aides have been drawing sharper and sharper contrasts with Clinton in recent days, especially after she came around to his position on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline. "What’s next? Will she call herself a democratic socialist?” Sanders spokesperson Michael Briggs quipped to MSNBC Friday. 

In a 2006 Senate debate, Sanders jumped up from his seat and began jabbing a finger at his opponent shouting about “people like you” before the audience boos and the debate moderator cut him off. 

4) Will Clinton punch down? Clinton is likely to face plenty of incoming blows, but don’t expect her to spend much time punching down to her rivals. At previous Democratic forums, Clinton has entirely ignored her Democratic challengers and focused all of her fire on the Republicans, throwing red meat to the crowd and saying there’s more difference between the Democrats and Republicans than among the Democrats. 

Clinton wants to show Democrats that she’s a fighter and the best candidate from their party to face off against Republicans, so she’ll demonstrate her chops by attacking them, not Bernie Sanders.

5) Will Iraq be a thorn in Clinton’s side for two days in a row? Three of Clinton’s four challengers opposed the Iraq War and have telegraphed plans to remind voters that Clinton did not when they meet on stage Tuesday night.

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Sanders’ campaign sent a press release over the weekend titled “Sanders’ Foreign Policy Experience” that was entirely focused on his opposition to the Iraq War and prediction that toppling Saddam Hussein would spark an uncontrollable civil war. And opposition to the war is integral to the candidacies of Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, who have both shown a willingness to knock Clinton on the issue.

“Secretary Clinton is always quick for the military intervention,” Martin O’Malley said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, while opposing a no-fly zone in Syria, which Clinton supports. Clinton has said her vote was a mistake, but only in 2014, and has stopped short of apologizing, giving her opponents something to gang up on her on. 

That’s a far cry from 2007 when, as damaging as her Iraq vote was, she was not alone. Then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich could get on stage in the first DNC-sanctioned debate in July of 2007 and say, "I'm the only one on this stage who voted against the war from the very beginning." 

6) Can Martin O’Malley break through? The former two-term governor of Maryland was not supposed to be heading into the first Democratic debate polling at barely 1%. But a series of missed opportunities and an unexpectedly strong candidacy from Bernie Sanders have left O’Malley with limited money and support and no obvious path to relevancy, let along victory.

O’Malley has perhaps the most to gain from Tuesday’s debate. He’s almost entirely unknown among Democrats, but tends be well received when he can attract an audience. However, he’s staked his entire campaign on pushing for more Democratic debates, raising expectations. So if he misses this opportunity, analysts will begin to doubt the long-term viability of his campaign.

7) Do the other two candidates mix things up or disappear? Two lesser candidates -- Webb and Chafee -- will also be on stage. With nothing to lose, they could be loose cannons that could add an unexpected element to the debate.