Are the odds fa­vor­able for San­ders in Ve­gas de­bate?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN TUMULTY

Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders (I) has been one of the big­gest sur­prises of the early pres­i­den­tial cam­paign sea­son, as he steadily rises in the Demo­cratic pri­mary polls and draws ador­ing throngs num­ber­ing tens of thou­sands to his ral­lies across the coun­try.

On Tues­day, with the lead-off of six sched­uled Demo­cratic de­bates, vot­ers will have their first chance to take the mea­sure of the pas­sion­ate new­comer to the na­tional scene along­side front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

For the for­mer sec­re­tary of state, the de­bate stage is a fa­mil­iar set­ting and one where she has per­formed well in her pre­vi­ous races for sen­a­tor and for pres­i­dent. But it is also well-suited to San­ders, say his aides and those who have seen him square off against op­po­nents in Ver­mont.

“He speaks from a cer­tain kind of cer­tainty, a declar­a­tive voice, steeped in a cer­tain amount of out­rage,” said Greg Guma, a lib­eral

ac­tivist and jour­nal­ist in Ver­mont whom then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin re­cruited to play San­ders in de­bate re­hearsals when the mayor of Burling­ton chal­lenged her as an in­de­pen­dent in 1986 (San­ders came in a dis­tant third).

Kunin’s im­pulse was to dig deep into her poli­cies and trace her ra­tio­nale, which made her ap­pear less res­o­lute in their prac­tice ses­sions. “One of the take­aways was: Don’t ex­plain so much. The par­al­lels are there” for Clin­ton, said Guma, who sup­ports San­ders’s pres­i­den­tial bid.

“There is no­body bet­ter than Bernie at de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage,” said Richard Tar­rant, the busi­ness­man whom Ver­mont Repub­li­cans nom­i­nated to go up against San­ders for an open Se­nate seat in 2006. “I hap­pen to hate the mes­sage.”

Tar­rant’s own ex­pe­ri­ence, he said, sug­gests that Clin­ton’s best strat­egy is to get un­der San­ders’s skin in the hope of pro­vok­ing an un­pres­i­den­tial out­burst.

“Oh, yes. You’ve got to ac­cuse him of some­thing. You point at his face, you ac­cuse him, and he goes nuts,” Tar­rant said. Then again, Tar­rant lost to San­ders by more than 30 per­cent­age points.

Both Clin­ton’s and San­ders’s camps are pre­dict­ing a far more se­date — and sub­stan­tive — fo­rum than the past two Repub­li­can de­bates. The lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­dates have stu­diously avoided di­rectly at­tack­ing each other thus far.

That is not likely to change when the klieg lights go on Tues­day night in Las Ve­gas, said Tad Devine, a vet­eran po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who is work­ing for San­ders.

While the two will not shy from talk­ing about their pol­icy dif­fer­ences, Devine added, “this could be a civil ex­change. Bernie’s not head­hunt­ing. I don’t see him out there try­ing to see how many times he can say ‘Iraq war’ ” to re­mind lib­eral Democrats that he voted against it while then-sen­a­tor Clin­ton came down in fa­vor.

The cam­paign sent a dif­fer­ent sig­nal Satur­day when it is­sued a news re­lease ti­tled “San­ders’ For­eign Pol­icy Ex­pe­ri­ence.” It did not men­tion Clin­ton di­rectly, but it re­called a speech that San­ders made on the House floor on Oct. 9, 2002, lay­ing out the rea­sons that he op­posed the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq.

Clin­ton’s sup­port of the in­va­sion — a de­ci­sion she later said she re­gret­ted — be­came a ma­jor ob­sta­cle in her 2008 quest for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion and a key point of dis­tinc­tion be­tween her and then-sen­a­tor Barack Obama, who op­posed it.

San­ders has put a big­ger dent in Clin­ton’s ar­mor of in­evitabil­ity than most ex­pected when he an­nounced his can­di­dacy in late May. His pop­ulist mes­sage and un­apolo­getic em­brace of big­ger gov­ern­ment has brought an out­pour­ing of sup­port from the left.

Mean­while, though Clin­ton has shifted to more lib­eral po­si­tions on a num­ber of is­sues, she re­mains the face of the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment, with its ties to cor­po­rate and Wall Street in­ter­ests. Nor has she suc­ceeded in draw­ing a clear pic­ture of how her ad­min­is­tra­tion would dis­tin­guish it­self from that of her hus­band, Bill Clin­ton, or Pres­i­dent Obama, for whom she served as sec­re­tary of state.

Clin­ton also has strug­gled with a con­tro­versy over her use of a pri­vate e-mail sys­tem, which has stirred public mis­giv­ings about her trust­wor­thi­ness.

The lead­ing con­tenders will not be the only ones on the stage Tues­day. Clin­ton ad­vis­ers say they are pre­par­ing for what, in ef­fect, could be two sep­a­rate de­bates go­ing on at the same time— one be­tween her and San­ders and the other in­volv­ing the other three con­tenders, all of whom are mak­ing barely a mark in the polls.

That means that for­mer Mary­land gover­nor Martin O’Malley, for­mer Vir­ginia sen­a­tor Jim Webb and for­mer Rhode Is­land sen­a­tor and gover­nor Lin­coln Chafee will be look­ing for a break­out mo­ment — and the best way to do that is to set off some fire­works.

O’Malley in par­tic­u­lar seems ea­ger to cap­i­tal­ize on an op­por­tu­nity that he de­scribed as “make or break” for his strug­gling cam­paign.

“Right now, the peo­ple in my party, the only two can­di­dates peo­ple have heard of are the in­evitable front-run­ner and the sen­a­tor from Ver­mont,” he said. “Once the de­bates hap­pen, peo­ple will be able to hear from all of the can­di­dates.”

For San­ders, prepa­ra­tion be­gan in earnest at an Oct. 2 meet­ing in Burling­ton with Devine and cam­paign man­ager Jeff Weaver, who served as San­ders’s House and Se­nate chief of staff and has been work­ing on his elec­tion ef­forts go­ing back to 1986.

Devine said the sen­a­tor re­quested brief­ing ma­te­ri­als on is­sues that are likely to arise dur­ing the de­bate and has been hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with pol­icy ex­perts. The cam­paign has de­clined to name who is of­fer­ing ad­vice — in part, ad­vis­ers ac­knowl­edge, in re­spect for the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of those who do not want to get on the wrong side of the for­mi­da­ble Clin­ton op­er­a­tion.

San­ders planned to ar­rive Satur­day night in Las Ve­gas and to buckle down for de­bate prep ses­sions Sun­day and Mon­day.

He and his ad­vis­ers are try­ing to fig­ure out what ques­tions are likely to come up, and how his op­po­nents will prob­a­bly re­spond. There were no plans, how­ever, for the kind of for­mal re­hearsals that Clin­ton re­port­edly is do­ing, with ad­vis­ers play­ing the roles of the other can­di­dates.

“He just doesn’t want to do that stuff. It’s just not him,” Devine said. “He knows what he needs.” Clin­ton’s skills are well-tested. “She’s a very good de­bater. She is firm. She is flu­ent. She, by and large, did very well in those de­bates” dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­mary of 2008, said David Ax­el­rod, who was Obama’s chief cam­paign strate­gist. “Where she some­times has dif­fi­cul­ties is where she has to make po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions on the spot on is­sues that are po­lit­i­cally fraught.”

Dur­ing that ear­lier race, for ex­am­ple, she ap­peared un­pre­pared when she was asked whether she backed a pro­posal by then-New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer to grant driver’s li­censes to illegal im­mi­grants.

Her equiv­o­cal an­swers drew fire from the other can­di­dates. Clin­ton now says she fa­vors giv­ing them driver’s li­censes.

San­ders and his team be­lieve that one area where he has an ad­van­tage over Clin­ton is the decades-long con­sis­tency of his po­si­tions: on trade, the Key­stone XL pipeline, gay mar­riage and other ar­eas where she has shifted to the left.

“It’s hard to throw him off his stride, be­cause his stride hasn’t changed,” said San­ders spokesman Michael Briggs.

The most un­com­fort­able ar­eas for San­ders, Ax­el­rod said, are “places where he’s made con­ces­sion to pol­i­tics, be­cause that runs against his brand. But there aren’t many of them,” with the ex­cep­tion of gun con­trol, on which the sen­a­tor’s mod­er­ate po­si­tion re­flects the ru­ral state that he rep­re­sents.

Ax­el­rod also said San­ders would ben­e­fit by adding touches of hu­mor and hu­man­ity. “He doesn’t of­ten in­voke real peo­ple, so there is this sort of the­o­ret­i­cal di­men­sion to his rhetoric, and that’s not nec­es­sar­ily help­ful at these sorts of events.”

“He speaks from a cer­tain kind of cer­tainty, a declar­a­tive voice, steeped in a cer­tain amount of out­rage.” Greg Guma, a lib­eral ac­tivist and jour­nal­ist in Ver­mont, about San­ders

AN­DREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Ahead of the first Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate, Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) and his team think that his con­sis­tency in his po­si­tions gives him an ad­van­tage over ri­valHil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

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