Bernie Sanders is a masterful debater and I don't think anyone expects him to do less than well tonight. The big question is, can he break through beyond his base? Tonight's CNN debate should be a solid plus for the Sanders team:
Sanders, who traveled to Liberty University last month to meet with conservative Christian students, takes pride in taking tough questions from hostile audiences, and he has a rock-solid sense of his own political compass that rarely leaves him struggling for an answer. The moderators shouldn't be a problem. But he has never faced an opponent as formidable as the former secretary of state, who shared the stage 26 times with then-Sen. Obama during the 2008 primary and scored her share of body blows. Clinton has refrained from attacking Sanders—for now. And while he leads in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, he still trails Clinton by huge margins among African American and Latino voters. Tuesday's debate will offer an early test of whether, with the benefit of a prime-time national TV audience, he can expand his support outside his fervent base.
The senator's aides told Politico that while he's been brushing up on foreign policy specifics of late, he won't hold any mock debates before the showdown in Las Vegas. (Clinton isn't taking her chances—her attorney Bob Barnett plays Sanders in the campaign's debate practice.) Sanders, for his part, has promised to draw out distinctions between himself and Clinton without resorting to negative attacks. Nor will he prepare any zingers. Don't expect a Lloyd Bentsen–Dan Quayle made-for-TV moment; the Bernie you see at the Wynn will likely be the Bernie you see in Portland or Burlington or anywhere else on the campaign trail. Sanders' recent responses to Clinton's belated opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal offers a glimpse of this approach. He'll thank his opponent for taking a stand—and then point out that he arrived there ages ago.
The approach hasn't failed him yet. Then again, he's never done anything quite like this before.