The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images
October 13, 2015 8:12 AM EDT

It’s Democratic debate day in Las Vegas. Here’s what to watch for:

  • Can Hillary Clinton reclaim her undisputed front-runner status? A polling slump over her email scandal and the rise of Bernie Sanders in early state polling has pierced the former shell of inevitability around the former Secretary of State. Sharing a stage with her rivals will be her clearest opportunity to distinguish herself from the pack once again.
  • Will Sanders rise to Clinton’s level? The Vermont Senator has been a critic from the outside, riding a wave of populist discontent in the Democratic Party, but he has yet to establish himself as a truly credible president. The debate may determine whether he’s a real alternative to Clinton, or just forcing her to cater more to her left flank.
  • Martin O’Malley faces a do-or-die moment on the debate stage. He’s campaigned harder and longer than any Democrat in the race, but has struggled under weak fundraising and just-as-weak polling. Positioning himself as a more progressive alternative to Clinton, he’s struggled to catch fire amid Sanders’ rise. If he can’t connect with voters tonight, it’ll likely mark the beginning of the end for his campaign.
  • Who are Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb? The two former lawmakers have earned a place on stage simply by virtue of being declared candidates. Neither has extensively campaigned and their name-recognition is close to zero among Democrats. They’re not going to win the nomination, and tonight, they need to provide a reason for an invitation to the next debate.
  • Who will strike first? Clinton and the other top two Democrats have been dancing around each other for months as they’ve rolled out conflicting policy proposals and aides have taken pot-shots and one another. But to date they’ve rarely engaged each other head-on. While most expect a more substance-heavy debate—as opposed to the personality-driven slugfest that were the two first Republican contests—it’s in all the Democrats’ interests to strike some blows against their rivals, which is one way of showing life on the debate stage. The open questions are who strikes first, and who lands the sharpest punch.
  • Joe Biden won’t be on stage, but will he be missed? The VP’s very-public mulling of a presidential run has extended for more than two months, and while he’s still incredibly popular with Democrats, will they be happy with their field tonight or be left wanting more?
  • How will Democrats approach President Obama? They’ll all fawn over Obamacare and credit his handling of the economy when he first took office, but expect to see differences over immigration, trade policy, and a range of foreign policy issues from Afghanistan to Syria to Russia. Each candidate is seeking to avoid the label of running Obama’s third term, but breaking too far from him may frustrate the president’s still-loyal base of supporters.

Elsewhere in politics, Jeb Bush is releasing his plan to repeal and replace Obamacare Tuesday in New Hampshire, providing tax credits for the purchase of catastrophic health care coverage, encouraging the use of Health Savings Accounts and allowing states to try different health care strategies in order to meet broad federal guidelines. Experts warn though, that such a plan would increase the number of uninsured.

Rand Paul praises the House Freedom Caucus, which helped overthrow Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in an interview with TIME’s Philip Elliott. He’s on a three-day swing through Iowa college towns, looking to win over the youthful caucus vote. Paul is also live-streaming his entire day online.

Clinton takes a shot at Carly Fiorina in an interview with TIME’s Jay Newton-Small, saying she shouldn’t get a pass on scrutiny because she’s a woman. Chris Christie emphasizes his pragmatism. And Joe Biden‘s real deadline.

Here are your must reads:

Must Reads

Longshot Candidates Prepare to Debate Clinton, Sanders
TIME’s Sam Frizell previews the longshot Democrats’ strategy

Clinton Says Fiorina Shouldn’t Get a Pass Because She’s a Woman
The Democratic front-runner swipes at her only female rival in an interview with TIME’s Jay Newton-Small

Rand Paul Praises House Conservatives in Speaker Fight
In an interview with TIME’s Philip Elliott, the libertarian lawmaker defends the ‘Freedom Caucus’

Sheldon Adelson Warms to Marco Rubio
Casino magnate prepares to lend Rubio a big leg up [Politico]

The Two Parties Aren’t Crazy, Just Changed
Demographic, geographic and ideological shifts have remade the look of Republicans and Democrats [Wall Street Journal]

Filing Deadlines Add to Pressure on Biden
First deadline is Oct. 29 in Georgia, putting expiration date on Biden deliberations [New York Times]

Sound Off

“How about having the military focusing on hunting down and killing the bad guys … instead of treating it as this crucible for social justice innovations. We’ve lost sight of what their job is and that’s what we need to get back to.” — Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa objecting to the military allowing transgender soldiers to serve

“I don’t believe the system is broken. What I believe is that the people we have employed to run it have broken their promises. It’s the people who are running it that’s broken.” — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie casts himself as a pragmatist at the NoLabels bipartisan conference in New Hampshire

Bits and Bites

4 Things We Learned About President Obama When He Interviewed Marilynne Robinson [TIME]

Pro-Kasich Super PAC Spending $6.5 Million on TV Ads Through New Hampshire Primary [WMUR]

What Top Clinton Donors Really Think [Politico]

Jeb Bush Gives Details on Obamacare Alternative [Associated Press]

Hillary Clinton Criticizes Donald Trump Outside His Hotel in Las Vegas [New York Times]

Clinton confidant expresses regret over handling of e-mail issue [Washington Post]

In Choreographed Campaigns, Candidates Stumble Over Choice of Music [New York Times]

Latest Unease on Right: Ryan Is Too Far Left [New York Times]

Clinton Server’s Software Had Hacking Risk [Associated Press]

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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