Another Democratic presidential debate on a Saturday? And just days before Christmas, too. Is anyone really going to watch when Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley gather in Manchester, N.H. for the Democrats’ third nationally televised debate?
Now they will.
There’s a new controversy in the race: The Democratic National Committee is punishing the Sanders campaign for allegedly accessing proprietary voter data maintained by the Clinton campaign. When the news broke, the Vermont senator accused the party leadership of giving Clinton the upper hand in penalizing his campaign by denying it access to the party’s 50-state voter file. His campaign filed a lawsuit in federal court against the DNC late Friday.
With another Democratic debate about to quietly pass without notice, what some at the DNC might have thought would be a sly and convenient means of bolstering Clinton’s campaign may have done just the opposite.
“If the DNC thought they were helping Hillary Clinton, they were not helping Hillary Clinton — they’ve created a big mess,” Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Now, there will be more interest in the debate because of this.”
Though ABC has yet to detail the agenda for Saturday’s Democratic debate, in addition to addressing the new conflict between the two leading candidates, it’s likely to pick up on many of the subjects at the center of the fifth Republican debate, held earlier this week: terrorism, national security and immigration.
The thrust of the Republican message was that America is at war, the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to destroy ISIS, and that immigration is out of control. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were among those calling for thousands of U.S. troops to fight ISIS, with Cruz demanding a full-scale “carpet bombing.”
But another major topic of discussion was Clinton.
A search of the debate’s transcript revealed that Cruz led all GOP nominees with eight “Hillary” mentions, followed by Chris Christie with seven and Carly Fiorina with six. The only GOP candidate in the main debate not to mention the former New York senator was the neurologist Ben Carson, who has been reluctant to attack opponents, even as his campaign is slowing.
And although Clinton has far from sewn-up the Democratic nomination, you wouldn’t have known that on Tuesday, considering how often the former secretary of state was mentioned by the Republican candidates. She does lead in many polls by a wide margin but Sanders, who has earned much more of the support of his party than most of the Republicans have earned from theirs, wasn’t mentioned by name once.
For Clinton, Saturday’s debate, was always going to pose an interesting challenge: How to counter Republicans on her right who are demanding firm action on national security and immigration, and Bernie Sanders on her Left, who generally focuses on income inequality, raising the minimum wage and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he warns will move jobs out of the U.S.
“She will seek to demonstrate her command of issues like national security and foreign policy — that’s a strong suit of hers,” Jim Papa, a Democratic strategist with the Global Strategy Group, said in a phone interview from Washington. “But she will also want to broaden the conversation to economic issues, job creation, education, topics that are important to American families.”
Democratic voters, Papa added, want to hear about both economic and national security issues. Clinton, Shrum said, will win points among her supporters criticizing the Republican positions on Syrian refugees and the Donald Trump-led call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
Now, because of the latest controversy, Clinton will have to talk, too, about her much-maligned campaign. And expect her to take flak from Republicans on the issue as well, as it feeds into the Republican narrative that has long cast Clinton as underhanded and deceitful.
If the DNC was trying to help Clinton, the plan backfired.
“This was a matter that should have been handled at a very low level,” Shrum said. “It was just a stupid thing for the DNC to do.”