What to watch for in the second Democratic primary debate

DES MOINES, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton has been on a hot streak since the first Democratic presidential debate last month. The main question heading into Saturday’s second encounter: Can her two challengers slow down her Big Mo’?

National security will play a prominent role in the debate in the aftermath of deadly terror attacks in Paris that killed more than 125 people and left about 350 injured. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, a development that will bring terror and the U.S. response to the jihadist group to the forefront.

Heading into the debate, Clinton expects to face a more direct challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in their first debate since the Democratic field has winnowed down to three candidates.

Both Sanders and O’Malley have taken steps to point out their differences and the underdog ex-governor is also trying to undercut Sanders as Clinton’s main alternative. But the debate could take a more somber tone following the Paris attacks.

Some things to look for in the two-hour debate:

PARIS: The string of deadly attacks in Paris will be front-and-center in the debate. As a former secretary of state, Clinton enters the debate in a stronger position to talk about the attacks and the U.S. effort to dismantle IS. Sanders and O’Malley have a more limited experience in foreign policy. CBS News, which is moderating the debate, said questions about national security and foreign policy related to the Paris attacks will play a more central role in the debate. CBS News Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Isham told reporters “it caused us to refocus some of the questions on what happened in Paris and the threat from terrorism and how the candidates would respond to the threat if they were president.” But he said other topics will be included. Clinton said at a New Hampshire town hall last week that she did not currently support seeking a declaration of war against the Islamic State, citing the diffuse nature of the threat. But she has called for a no-fly zone over northern Syria. The three candidates have opposed the U.S. entering a larger ground war in the Middle East to combat the rise of Islamic militants.

CAN ANYONE TRIP UP CLINTON?: Clinton’s strong performance in the first debate kicked off a winning streak: Vice President Joe Biden decided not to run for president, she emerged unscathed during an 11-hour visit to the congressional panel on Benghazi and saw her poll numbers rise in the aftermath. Even a San Antonio rally alongside Housing Secretary Julian Castro, viewed as a potential vice presidential pick, created buzz about a future Democratic ticket. In short, she has a good problem to deal with: How to manage soaring expectations. “She wants to make sure people know where she stands on the issues,” Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney said in Denver. “I’ve seen some of the coverage of what the other candidates’ strategy is going to be but our strategy remains the same.” The Paris attacks are likely to garner attention at the start of the debate and allow Clinton to talk about her experience as secretary of state.


The former secretary of state has little incentive to toss verbal bombs. When asked to describe the differences in the race, she typically says there’s little that separates Democrats on policy compared to a jumbled Republican race. Clinton doesn’t want to alienate the loyal following Sanders has built among young voters. But Sanders and O’Malley appear more inclined to highlight their differences with Clinton, including the Keystone XL pipeline (they opposed it, she avoided the issue and then opposed), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (they oppose it, she eventually got there) and the federal minimum wage (they want $15 an hour, she’s for $12 an hour). Look for Clinton’s recent comments in New Hampshire about “illegal immigrants” and her past support for a border fence to play a factor in the discussion.


In the first debate, Sanders famously said Americans don’t care about Clinton’s “damn emails,” suggesting the inquiry into her use of a private email system should be off-limits. He has since taken a different tactic, reiterating that the investigation should play its course. As Clinton has consolidated support, Sanders has pointed out their differences on the environment, trade, the federal minimum wage and gay marriage. So any strong suggestions from Sanders that Clinton’s email practices should be relevant in the primaries would be noteworthy. Sanders’ advisers say the senator will highlight the differences in the race but won’t let it get personal. “It’s not like there’s a wild imperative to go after someone in the debate. This campaign is doing phenomenally well,” said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver.


Mired in single-digits, O’Malley is running out of time, low on cash and ready to challenge both Clinton and Sanders. But can he shake up the race? His appearance at a South Carolina forum sponsored by MSNBC may have been his best of the campaign and included several barbs, including criticism of Sanders for suggesting in 2012 that Obama might need a primary challenge. Nearly six months into his campaign, O’Malley is still searching for a high-profile, breakout moment that will make more Democrats give him a second look. But he’s still relatively unknown, so slash-and-burn tactics carry some risk.


Much of Sanders’ appeal has been derived from his unconventional persona and his long commitment to the plight of distressed workers. The 74-year-old “democratic socialist” is an atypical presidential candidate but he could tarnish his brand if he goes negative on Clinton. Clinton could see a preview of things to come if any Democrat portrays her as a poll-driven, political chameleon more motivated by winning than standing up for principles. Republicans hope to make that case in the fall and would welcome any help now.


Sanders is building a strong organization in Iowa, especially on college campuses, and has shown strength in New Hampshire, which has a history of rewarding candidates from New England. But by mid-February, Democrats will need to appeal to a more diverse electorate in South Carolina, Nevada and a litany of “Super Tuesday” states in the South. Sanders won the endorsement of a top black Democrat in Ohio, former state senator Nina Turner, and will hold a rally in her hometown of Cleveland on Monday. His team hopes it signals a breakthrough in connecting with a bigger swath of the Democratic base.

Support PBS NewsHour: