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FP’s Guide to Tuesday’s Democratic Presidential Debate

Hillary Clinton’s rivals have spent months carefully avoiding direct attacks. With her poll numbers falling, the gloves may finally come off.

Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, greets attendees after speaking at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Clinton is in the midst of one final round of visits to the key primary states ahead of the Oct. 13 debate in Las Vegas and, nine days later, her testimony before the Benghazi committee. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, greets attendees after speaking at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Clinton is in the midst of one final round of visits to the key primary states ahead of the Oct. 13 debate in Las Vegas and, nine days later, her testimony before the Benghazi committee. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For months, Hillary Clinton’s top Democratic rivals have been reluctant to attack her directly, preferring instead to highlight their own progressive agendas for the country. But ahead of Tuesday’s first Democratic debate, in Las Vegas, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are seizing on the Democratic front-runner’s views on global trade and the use of military force in an effort to undermine her popularity among liberals.

The attacks set the stage for a debate that is likely to draw on past and current policy differences over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the massive 12-nation free trade deal concluded this month — and the protracted civil war in Syria.

It comes at an important moment in the race for the Democratic nomination. Clinton has dramatically outraised her opponents and was initially seen as the inevitable candidate. But her support has slipped amid a scandal over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Sanders, meanwhile, has been attracting crowds of tens of thousands of people while espousing a fiercely liberal agenda. Clinton beats Sanders by double digits in virtually every national poll, but lags behind him by 41 to 32 percentage points among likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, an important early voting state.

Democratic fears about Clinton are prompting calls for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race, something Biden’s aides and advisors say he has been considering. Under the rules set by CNN, which is hosting the debate, the vice president would be eligible to participate if he chose to, though that is unlikely to happen.

CNN, fully aware that the Democratic debate is likely to draw a fraction of the record-setting audiences of the Donald Trump-dominated Republicans ones, has promised a deeper focus on policy issues with tougher follow-up questions about the inconsistencies of each candidate. The debate is likely to focus most closely on domestic policy issues, such as gun control and income inequality, but is expected to include foreign-policy issues as well. Besides O’Malley and Sanders, Clinton’s other two Democratic challengers are Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor and senator, and Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator and secretary of the Navy.

In sharp contrast with the Republican presidential contest, which has been marked by high-profile personal attacks among the candidates, Democrats have largely played nice with each other. But that dynamic is beginning to change.

On Sunday, Sanders took a swipe at Clinton by noting that he has been a steadfast critic of U.S. trade deals that benefit corporations over the middle class while his rival has not. “People will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations … with the secretary,” Sanders told NBC’s Meet the Press.

The remark was in response to Clinton’s announcement last week that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership because, in her view, it fails to offer sufficient protections for U.S. workers, doesn’t crack down on currency manipulation by foreign countries, and benefits large pharmaceutical companies at the expense of consumers.

Political observers were quick to point out that Clinton played a key role in crafting the trade pact, which she had billed as an important component of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open, free, transparent, fair trade,” Clinton said during a 2012 speech.

Those comments could now come back to bite her by fueling the growing public doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll of Iowa found that only 35 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of Clinton compared with 59 percent who view her unfavorably, a 24 percentage-point gap. In New Hampshire, it’s a 23-point gap.

“That she felt the need to tack to the left on TPP was politically predictable but ideologically confounding,” Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. “She was very influential in building support for the TPP as secretary of state.”

The current populist fervor against the trade pact comes at an ideal time for Sanders, who has railed against every major free trade deal that has come before the Senate. Earlier in his career, the Vermont socialist worked to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement and free trade agreements with Central America and China.

However, Sanders has been cagey about what he would do to undo the trade pact should he ascend to the White House — an area that may be explored more during Tuesday’s debate. “Without going into all the details, there are things that we can do,” he told Meet the Press on Sunday. “I don’t want to be definitive about it.”

Another area where candidates have sought to distance themselves from Clinton is on national security, where she has consistently advocated for hawkish military solutions to global conflicts.

This month, Clinton announced her support for a no-fly zone in Syria as a means of reducing the bloodshed in the country and slowing down the exodus of refugees into Europe and elsewhere. Under most circumstances, the policy would require the Defense Department to take out Syrian air-defense systems and potentially shoot down Syrian aircraft, moves that would mark a significant escalation of the U.S. role in the conflict.

Both Sanders and O’Malley have come out against such a proposal — a policy difference that is likely to surface on Tuesday as well.

“Secretary Clinton’s always quick for the military intervention,” O’Malley told CNN on Sunday. “I believe that a no-fly zone right now is not advisable.”

“No-fly zones sound attractive, but no-fly zones also have to be enforced. And given the fact that the Russian air force is in the airspace over Syria, this could lead to an escalation of Cold War proportions because of an accident, and I don’t think that’s in the best interests of the United States,” he added. “There are many fights in this world; not every fight is our fight.”

Clinton’s other Democratic rivals are also likely to bring up her views on foreign policy as a way of differentiating themselves. Chafee, in particular, is running as the most anti-interventionist candidate.

“I would argue that anybody who voted for the Iraq War should not be president, and certainly anybody who voted for the Iraq War should not lead the Democratic Party into an election,” the former senator told Politico in April, a reference to Clinton’s 2002 vote in support of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

Despite some significant differences on trade and military intervention in the Middle East, the candidates are likely to broadly agree about other geopolitical issues facing the United States, including the economic rise of China and the military aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe and Syria.

In the “Issues” section of Clinton’s campaign website, she notes the importance of going “toe-to-toe” with Putin to curb his territorial ambitions. She recommends extending the Obama administration’s economic sanctions against the Kremlin and increasing the presence of U.S. troops in Europe. In Asia, she promises to “hold … China accountable” if it doesn’t toe the U.S. line on “cyberspace, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change.”

The site does not indicate how she would accomplish this, but it’s unclear if her rivals have any better answers either. Unlike the Republican base, Democrats are less concerned about tactical geopolitical plans to deter America’s rivals — a fact that is likely to result in a more subdued debate.

Viewers may also expect a question on how to counter the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East, but that’s unlikely to draw a big clash between the candidates. “We may see some differences in approach on U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria, but even Bernie Sanders has largely agreed with Obama’s approach against ISIS,” said Peter Billerbeck, a former foreign-policy aide to Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

“Those hoping for a GOP-style circus showdown will be disappointed since differences on foreign policy among Democratic candidates are largely of degree, not type,” he added.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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