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A viewer's guide to tonight's Democratic debate

Tonight’s Democratic presidential debate from Las Vegas won’t look anything like the first two Republican debates. Here's what you need to know.
A billboard showing a picture of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton advertising the upcoming Democratic Presidential debate is seen at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino on Oct. 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nev.
A billboard showing a picture of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton advertising the upcoming Democratic Presidential debate is seen at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino on Oct. 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nev.

A viewer’s guide to tonight’s first Democratic debate: Here’s what all five candidates need to accomplish… A reminder: Hillary is an experienced -- and aggressive – debater… Before a non-liberal/progressive crowd (No Labels), Sanders’ remarks fell flat… Why Biden not participating in tonight’s debate is a big deal… And Jeb to focus on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

A viewer’s guide to tonight’s debate

Tonight’s Democratic presidential debate from Las Vegas won’t look anything like the first two Republican debates. It will be smaller (just five candidates are participating). There will be no undercard debate. And, of course, there will be no Donald Trump. Below is our guide for what each candidate needs to accomplish in tonight’s first Dem debate, which starts at 9:00 pm ET:

  • Hillary Clinton: The Democratic frontrunner is never going to win a fight over who’s the true progressive in the race (see her TPP flip-flop), so she has two goals: One, demonstrate that she is, by far, the best Democrat on that stage -- for Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as the general election. Two, she needs to exude passion and be the dogged policy wonk. And don’t ignore this image: The stage will consist of her and four white men. Just like we saw with Carly Fiorina in the GOP debates, that kind of contrast can pack a punch. Her biggest worry tonight is not the other candidates; it’s likely the moderators. It will be interesting to see if she tries to use BERNIE as a foil to prove her general election viability -- think his I’m-not-a-capitalist remark.
  • Bernie Sanders: He simply has to come across as electable. Sure, he’s faring well in many general-election polls right now. But make no mistake: His comment on “Meet the Press” Sunday that he’s not a capitalist isn’t a winning general-election message, especially when being a socialist running for president is more unpopular than being a Muslim or an atheist. Another question we have: How does Sanders hold up over two hours of debate? One way to judge tonight’s debate is to gauge who does a better job shoring up his/her weakness -- Clinton’s not-always progressive views vs. Sanders’ electability doubts.
  • Martin O’Malley: The former Maryland governor simply needs to find a moment to finally break through, especially with a new Washington Post poll showing him registering at just 4% in his home state of Maryland (!!!). Here’s something to chew on: Does O’Malley target Clinton, or does he instead go after Sanders (who may very well be O’Malley’s biggest threat in this Democratic field)? 
  • Jim Webb: The former Virginia senator needs a strong performance/moment to simply get his credibility back. You’d be forgiven if you forget that Webb is still running for the presidency, given how few events he’s done compared with the competition. Webb is a serious politician with serious ideas. But this presidential contest -- so far -- hasn’t helped his reputation; it has diminished him. And knowing Webb, it bugs him that he hasn’t been able to get traction on income inequality, an issue he believes he put on the table before any other mainstream Dem (see his 2007 State of the Union response). He may let his irritation show which won't be a good first impression. By the way, it will be striking when the Iran deal conversation comes up, because Webb is one Democrat who has doubts about it.
  • Lincoln Chafee: What the former Rhode Island governor and senator needs to accomplish is give a rationale for his candidacy -- other than his opposition to the Iraq war (which was a rationale from eight years ago but not now) and his enthusiastic embrace of the Metric system.

Hillary is an experienced -- and aggressive -- debater

Despite Hillary Clinton’s rough last few months as a presidential candidate, don’t forget this fact: She’s a strong, experienced, and aggressive debater. She’s not only the sole Democrat on tonight’s stage who has participated in presidential debates before (some 20-plus during the 2007-2008 cycle), but she more often than not was the best performer in them. Indeed, with one key exception (the Oct. 30, 2007 Philly debate over drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants), Clinton emerged unscathed from all of those Dem debates, and she was a bulldog when going on the offensive -- see the Feb. 26, 2008 NBC/MSNBC debate over NAFTA and health care, the Jan. 21, 2008 CNN debate hitting Obama for praising Ronald Reagan, or the April 16, 2008 ABC debate blasting Obama for his bitter/guns remark.

But the Clinton campaign is focusing more on next week’s Benghazi committee than tonight’s debate

Even though tonight’s debate is a big moment for Clinton and her campaign, we have it on good authority that her team is making more preparations about next week’s Benghazi committee appearance than tonight’s debate. Indeed, her Oct. 22 testimony could very well be her most important event in this important month of October. And don’t miss Politico’s tick-tock on how the Clinton campaign has handled -- or mishandled -- the email controversy over the past seven months. One under-read part of the story: How both Clintons (Hillary and Bill) seem to missing an uber-strategist to help hold their hands during this campaign.

Before a non-liberal crowd, Sanders’ remarks fell flat

At yesterday’s “No Labels” confab in New Hampshire, our colleague Benjy Sarlin made this observation about Bernie Sanders’ remarks to the moderate/centrist crowd: They fell flat. “Sanders, who also frequently speaks to crowds of thousands of frenzied supporters, addressed a less enthused audience during his video address. After a warm greeting, the room was mostly quiet, with a number filing out of their seats, texting on their phones or chatting with neighbors as he rattled off statistics about inequality.” Sure, the addresses via video aren’t going to play as well as those in person, but Sanders’ performance was a reminder that he usually addresses crowds of liberals and progressives. According to our Sept. NBC/WSJ poll, only 31% of Americans identify themselves as being liberal – which means for Democratic candidates to win national elections, they have to over-perform with moderates, too. Can Sanders do that?

Why Biden not participating in tonight’s debate is a big deal

As expected, Vice President Joe Biden won’t be participating at tonight’s Democratic debate. Instead, he’s attending meetings at the White House, per his schedule. We can’t emphasize enough how big of a deal it is for Biden NOT to be on tonight’s debate stage, because it dampens the enthusiasm he needs if he wants to get into the race. Per NBC’s Kristen Welker, Biden was unable to reach a decision about his presidential plans after spending another weekend with his family, according to a source familiar with Biden’s thinking. But as we wrote yesterday, the clock is ticking. And here’s the New York Times: “The danger for Mr. Biden, as his advisers know all too well, is that intrigue can easily turn into fatigue. After 10 weeks of his being egged on by Democrats disenchanted with Mrs. Clinton and by a news media eager for a race to cover, Mr. Biden increasingly faces demands that he make up his mind.”

Waiting to decide until after the debate or Clinton’s Benghazi testimony looks calculating

Biden waiting until after this debate to announce his presidential intentions -- and maybe even after Clinton’s Benghazi committee testimony -- risks looking calculating. That said, the Biden source tells Welker that Biden is more likely trying to determine whether he and his family are emotionally ready, given the recent loss of his son Beau. Still, he can’t wait forever, because that indecision doesn’t help his party, Hillary Clinton, or even Biden himself, as we wrote yesterday. And Welker’s source adds that Biden knows he has to decide soon.

Jeb to focus on repealing and replacing Obamacare

Finally, on the GOP side today, NBC’s Jordan Frasier reports: “Jeb Bush will call for repealing President Obama's healthcare law and lay out a three-point plan for replacing it Tuesday in New Hampshire, the latest in a string of policy proposals from the Republican presidential candidate. Bush's plan will focus on promoting innovation, lowering costs and deferring power to states, according to documents detailing the proposal. During a campaign call with donors and supporters, campaign officials said the plan reflects input from people throughout the healthcare industry and lays out a system they said is more suitable for the 21st century.”

Additional reporting by Leigh Ann Caldwell.