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Three things to watch for in the Democratic debate in Flint

This is one of Bernie Sanders' last, best chances to stop Hillary Clinton.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pose together onstage at the start of the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Mich. on March 6, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pose together onstage at the start of the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Mich. on March 6, 2016.

DETROIT, Mi. -- With a critical primary here on Tuesday, Sunday night’s debate in Flint, Michigan, will be one of Bernie Sanders’ last, best chances to stop front-runner Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inexorable march to the Democratic nomination.

Sanders comes into the faceoff with a bit of momentum after pulling off wins in Kansas and Nebraska’s caucuses on Saturday, and he’s expected to win another caucus in Maine on Sunday. But Clinton ended up with a solid delegate haul of her own by winning Louisiana’s primary by a sweeping margin Saturday. 

But those smaller states are worth little compared to Michigan with its 147 pledged delegates. “Now, all eyes turn to Michigan,” Clinton said Saturday night at a Democratic Party dinner after congratulating Sanders on his wins.

Sanders is already falling dangerously behind Clinton in the delegate count, and his path to the nomination gets narrower and narrower by the day unless he can start to beat Clinton in more states by larger margins. The debate is one opportunity for Sanders to shake up the current dynamic of the race. 

Both candidates are also looking ahead to contests on March 15, when a group of delegate-rich states will vote, including Ohio, which is similar in many ways to Michigan. Florida will also vote that day, but Clinton and Sanders will face off in another debate just four days prior in Miami.

Here are three major things to look for in tonight’s debate:

Trade war

With its large automotive manufacturing sector, few states have been more impacted by outsourcing than Michigan, and Sanders is banking on his consistent opposition to controversial free trade treaties like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership to help him defeat Clinton in the state.

NAFTA, which was signed by Clinton’s husband when he was president, has been blamed for the flow of jobs and manufacturing plants to Mexico, where labor is cheaper. Sanders opposed both NAFTA and the TPP in Congress. Clinton says she thinks NAFTA needs to be renegotiated and came out against TPP last summer after helping to promote an early draft of the deal as secretary of state.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clash over trade

That’s not good enough, says Sanders, who has been running ads in Michigan on trade and hitting Clinton’s “disastrous trade policy” regularly on the stump. On Sunday, he wrote an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press decrying the treaties’ impact on Detroit and Flint. 

Clinton’s camp, meanwhile, has shot back by noting that Sanders opposed the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which helps manufacturers secure financing to sell goods abroad. And besides, Clinton's campaign says, she now has the same policy as Sanders: opposition to the TPP and a desire to renegotiate NAFTA. 

Trade policy is complicated and largely ignored by many constituencies in the Democratic Party, but for organized labor voters and people directly impacted by outsourcing, there are few issues more emotional and important.

Water crisis

The water crisis in Flint will be front and center in the debate and is the reason the city was chosen as the site for this debate. The candidates have both visited Flint and spoken of the crisis as a shameful exemplar of inequalities in America.

But they have taken different approaches that speak to the larger differences between the candidates. Clinton sent an a top aide to the city to meet with local officials as part of what her campaign touts as a pragmatic approach to solving the problem in Flint.

Sanders, meanwhile, focused on accountability and took the more drastic step of calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder, who is implicated in the decision to switch Flint’s water supply to a contaminated source.

Battle for Michigan

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver last week called Michigan “a critical showdown state in this race.”

Clinton is currently ahead in Michigan by 17 percentage points, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll out Sunday. Sanders has been gaining steam and closing the gap, but he may not have enough time to make up the ground.

RELATED: Poll: Trump, Clinton ahead in Michigan

The state’s demographics and politics are favorable enough to Sanders to make the state winnable, with about 80 percent of the population being white and 14 percent black. And his message is likely to resonate in a state with a large organized labor presence and history of progressive activism. 

While Clinton won the state in 2008, the example offers little guidance since Barack Obama and most of the other candidates pulled their names off of the ballot after the Democratic National Committee ruled that Michigan had violated its nominating rules.

If Sanders doesn’t win Michigan, he’ll have one final chance to pull major upset on March 15 before the math becomes entirely prohibitive. At that point, more than half the states will have voted.