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Expect policy talk, 'no drama' at Dem debate

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-13 06:00:27-04

Remember what political debates were like before Donald Trump?

If not, then Tuesday’s first Democratic debate in Las Vegas should be a good reminder.

Experts predict real policy discussion, more face-time for candidates, fewer attacks and, well, much lower ratings.

“The Republican debates are just much easier to market,” said Joe Valenzano, chair of University of Dayton’s communications department. “They have bombastic personalities, they aren’t afraid to attack each other, they have a lot of candidates fighting for time.”

Tuesday’s debate, hosted by CNN and Facebook, features a clear front-runner, Hillary Clinton, a left-leaning Bernie Sanders, and three low-polling challengers who have, until now, been virtually ignored by the press.

This certainly lacks the reality-television appeal that boosted the first GOP debate, hosted by Fox News, to attract 24 million viewers and become the highest-rated primary debate in television history.

“In a lot of ways, this is a no-drama debate,” Valenzano said. “The Democrats have their heir-apparent, which is always how it’s usually been for the Republicans. And this time the Republican field is wide open.”

But there’s still plenty to watch on Tuesday night. Experts say new issues, such as women’s health and the Black Lives Matter movement, will finally get attention. And there’s plenty of room for political gaffes, posturing by unknown candidates, and an image remodel by Clinton as she tries to become more likeable.

“I think it will be interesting in a different way than Republican debates, which at times, were a free for all with so many people on stage,” said Stephen Mockabee, a University of Cincinnati political science professor. “We’ll get to hear quite a bit more from every candidate since there are only five.”

Here are a few things to look out for going into the debate: 

Will Joe Biden show up? 

CNN tweeted out a photo Monday of a sixth podium just in case Vice President Joe Biden decided to announce a last-minute bid for the White House and show up to the debate. Biden is widely expected to not attend, but “For CNN, why not dangle it and create an element of suspense,” said Sean Comer, Xavier University’s director of government relations. “If you want to drive ratings and you just had a hugely successful debate with Republicans, anything you do to try to get people to tune in is a great selling point.”

Can Hillary Clinton relate to Joe Six-pack?

While Clinton may have the most experience, she isn’t always considered the most likeable. “The debate is really about Hillary Clinton’s ability or inability to reclaim her own public image,” Valenzano said. She should try to move away from the image that rules don’t apply to her, said Dan Birdsong, a UD political science lecturer. She may take advice from her husband, Bill Clinton, who was superb at using personal stories to relate to voters. “She’ll have to position herself in the story she tells and weave that story through her policy to show that she can relate to Joe Six-pack,” Birdsong said.

What issues will take center stage?

Expect topics such as Black Lives Matter, women’s health, pay inequality and climate change to get more attention in this debate. “I think all of them will talk about equal pay for women, and they will all talk about a war on women” Valenzano said. But Mike Brill, president of College Democrats of Ohio, also wants to hear about student debt and college affordability, as well as environmental concerns. “I feel those topics the Republicans haven’t really talked about during the debates,” he said. Also expect plenty of foreign policy questions, and perhaps more focus on immigration, since CNN Español anchor Juan Carlos Lopez is one of the three moderators.

Does anyone know Martin O’Malley?

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley needs to stand out in this debate to give his campaign traction. In fact, UC political science professor David Niven helped O’Malley prepare for the debate, so he declined to comment for this story. But fellow UC professor, Mockabee, said the 52-year-old O’Malley will try to be the young alternative on a stage of older candidates. He is a decade younger than former governor and senator from Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee, and 22 years younger than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Watch for phrases such as “new leadership,” and “fresh-faced alternative,” which are really just code words for “I’m not as old as the other guys,” Mockabee said.

Will the outliers attack Hillary Clinton?

Low-polling candidates such as O’Malley, Chafee and Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator, may criticize Clinton in order to get much-needed air time. But the attacks won’t be as cutting or personal as in the Republican debates. “I wouldn’t expect the attacks to be as sharp,” Mockabee said. “A lot of the tone in the Republican debates was set by Trump.” In this debate expect subtle slights, such as calling for a “new direction” to the party. “I don’t expect any attacks on Hillary Clinton’s character head-on, like we’ve seen in the Republican debates,” he said.

Will moderators try to stoke controversy?

While candidates may shy away from criticizing Clinton over the scandals about email and Benghazi, moderators may try to bring up hot topics because she is the likely presidential nominee. “There could be the potential baiting of candidates to comment on scandals, and to create a race where there may not be one, “ Valenzano said. And ratings are enormously important so moderators may try to use scandals, he said.

What will low-polling candidates say?

Candidates with the most to gain from the debate are polling the lowest. With only five candidates on the stage, each will get much more time than Republicans, who had 10 and 11 candidates at their debates. “I think we’ll get to hear more from other candidates besides Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton because the media hasn’t been focusing on them,” Brill said. While Brill supports Clinton, he wants to hear from others and is hoping for an interesting policy discussion.

Can a political gaffe ruin a campaign?

“Candidates spend hours and hours preparing for these debates. They are under a lot of pressure,” Comer said. While they want the spotlight, they can’t afford a mistake. “That can spell the end for them,” he said. They all have practiced lines and messages they hope to get across. But they don’t know what questions moderators will ask, how hard moderators will push and if other candidates will attack them. That’s why Brill is so excited and hosting a debate watch party. “These debates are like sports games,” he said. “It’s extremely exciting.”