Tonight, we get the answer to 2016's version of a tree falling in the forest: in a nationally televised debate that doesn't include Donald Trump, will anyone bother to watch?
For the record, the Democrats' inaugural presidential debate technically, the CNN Facebook Democratic Debate, the first of six such scheduled affairs is set to begin at 8:30 p.m. ET.
The participants: Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. For those curious about stage logistics, Sanders and O'Malley will stand on either side of Hillary.
Absent Trump, don't look for a ratings bonanza especially since the debate goes head-to-head with Game Four of the Dodgers-Mets series (not to mention Fox's The Grinder, a show about the legal system and not the dragged-out sport of presidential campaigning). CNN already knows it'll be hurting for viewership along the lines of the previous two Trump-centric Republican debates, which is why the network is streaming the debate for free for anyone with a computer (and a load of patience)
What else to look for tonight? Here's a quick rundown:
1) How High A Bar For Hillary? We could pretend that it really matters what her four rivals have to say. But let's be honest: as much as anything, this debate centers on Hillary Clinton's style and demeanor and how heavy of a heavyweight the media label her. Hillary will be the most experienced presidential debate on this particular stage she went at it over 20 times with Barack Obama in 2008 (at times, tensely) and she experienced the process vicariously through her husband's two campaigns back in the 1990's. Thus we have a question of media expectations: will the attending press expect her to mop up her novice competition? If she stumbles here and there throughout the debate but otherwise walks away relatively damage-free, is the night a win, a loss or a nothing burger for the Democrats' frontrunner?
2) And Bernie? He's said he won't attack Hillary (actually he will, but it will be via policy, not persona). He's also said he's not bothering with debate prep (actually, he is it just doesn't look that way). The point is: this has the potential to be Bernie Sanders' breakout moment his first prolonged national audience (unless you're hooked on C-SPAN), and a big chance to build beyond the early primary states. Look for two things from the Democrats' socialist Democrat on Tuesday night: (1) reminding the world that he opposed the same U.S. invasion of Iraq that then-Sen. Clinton supported (Sanders' campaign issued a news release on Saturday reminding the media where the two candidates stood in 2002); (2) being as premeditatedly unpremeditated in his authenticity no forced smiles, banal talking points, weasel words or rehearsed one-liners and comebacks . . . as opposed to you-know-who.
3) The Other Guys. That would be O'Malley, Chafee and Webb. There's injury: all three are under 1% nationwide, per the Real Clear Politics Average. And there's insult: Team Hillary didn't bother with a Webb or Chafee stand-in during her debate prep. Not paying attention to the latter might turn out to be a wee miscalculation. Chafee's been a lot of things in his political career a Republican, a Democrat, an independent. He's also a nasty debater back in 2006, he spent an hour drilling home one point: he wanted voters to believe his opponent was corrupt. Then again, it might come as welcome relief to O'Malley, who's likely to go after Mrs. Clinton on two fronts: as a former governor of a deep-blue state, his longstanding support of progressive ideas that she's only recently embraced (gun control, same-sex marriage, benefits for illegal immigrants); that he's the Democrat more in sync with Elizabeth Warren and her war on Wall Street. As for Jim Webb: he's the thinking man in this field the only candidate not tilting or pandering left. Methinks he'll have a tough time getting a word in edgewise.
4) Barack Obama. The leader of the Democratic Party won't be on the stage. As Vice President Joe Biden won't be participating, there won't be a current member of this administration there to defend the record. Still, it's worth watching to see how readily Hillary ties herself to Obama's policies. A third Obama term is a strong sell among hardcore Democratic activists who still cherish the concept of "hope". It's problematic when the contest shifts to a general election. Conservatives see a Clinton-Obama ticket (rhetorically, that is) as their winning ticket in 2016. The guess here: Hillary cherry-picks a few of her former boss's greatest hits: Obamacare, being in the White House Situation Room for the bin Laden raid (this becomes a bigger deal if Biden enters the raid). And she mimics Obama by saying she won't turn back the clock to 2008. As for that dicey stuff about Putin and Libya? It's Vegas: when cornered pull this Sharon Stone move.
Reprinted from Forbes.com