It’s Democratic debate day in Las Vegas. Here’s what to watch for:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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?
7. 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.