Without a Donald Trump, Democratic debate may be subdued — but still crucial for candidates

Democratic presidential candidates Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb.
Democratic presidential candidates Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb. AP FILE

Picture, for a moment, a presidential contest without Donald Trump.

The biggest political story of the year would be Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator credibly challenging — beyond his own expectations — former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate, the first Clinton-vs.-Sanders showdown, might make for intriguing television.

Instead, the debate, hosted by CNN at the lavish Wynn Las Vegas, will draw unavoidable comparisons to the two already held by Republicans featuring Trump antics so entertaining that both debates shattered TV-ratings records. Democrats, Trump predicted Monday, won’t be able to compete.

“I think people are going to turn it on for a couple of minutes and then fall asleep,” he said in an interview on Fox & Friends.

For Democrats relieved that their primary hasn’t been taken over by a celebrity candidate, however, the debate offers a serious opportunity to see five rivals on the same stage. With fewer contenders than in the GOP race, there’s no need for a separate “undercard” debate.

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Clinton and Sanders will stand next to three almost completely unknown candidates who wouldn’t have made prime time in the Republican debate: former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Polls show such little support for the trio that in some cases the results are listed as an asterisk.

For Chafee, O’Malley and Webb, the debate presents a chance — perhaps the only one they’ll get — to introduce themselves to voters and make a strong impression as Clinton and Sanders alternatives. O’Malley has been particularly overt in his Clinton criticism, trying to position himself as a more progressive candidate with a better shot at getting elected than Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.”

He has bashed the Democratic National Committee, led by Weston U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, over its six-debate schedule, claiming it’s been “rigged” to benefit Clinton and short-change primary voters. Wasserman Schultz has defended the number of debates as sufficient.

Not invited to Vegas: Democratic candidate Larry Lessig, a Harvard law professor who said he raised more than $1 million in September after launching a bid centered on overhauling the nation’s campaign-finance system. He didn’t qualify because he didn’t appear in at least five national polls leading up to the debate.

Joe Biden did. And that means the sitting vice president could decide to declare a candidacy at the last minute and show up on stage. CNN has stoked the highly unlikely possibility, noting the presence of a Biden lectern waiting in the wings, just in case.

Without Biden, Clinton and Sanders will dominate the debate — but don’t expect them to snipe at each other with mordant remarks. Clinton has mostly ignored Sanders, aware that jabbing him might alienate progressive voters key to primaries. He has struggled to make inroads with blacks and Hispanics crucial to the Democratic coalition that twice elected President Barack Obama.

“I happen to respect and like Hillary Clinton, so I don’t get into personal attacks,” Sanders said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “But are there differences of opinion that should be discussed? Of course there are. That’s what this election is about.”

Their policy differences — and there are several — have at times been overshadowed by Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state.

She told Telemundo in a recent interview that Republicans “have gone after me in order to drive my poll numbers down because they don’t want to run against me, because they know I’m a fighter.”

“They know I will fight for comprehensive immigration reform, for example, for education, affordable college, healthcare for all,” she said. “That’s the kind of person I am. That’s what I’ve done my entire life.”