Democrats May Play it Safe at UNH Debate, But For Different Reasons

Feb 4, 2016

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. Clinton and Sanders clashed over U.S. involvement in the Middle East, gun control and economic policy, outlining competing visions for a party seeking to keep the White House for a third straight term.
Credit AP Photo/John Locher

New Hampshire voters will get one last chance to hear from the two Democratic presidential candidates Thursday night before heading to the polls for next week’s primary.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will square off at a debate at the University of New Hampshire.

Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about the Democratic race.

Before looking ahead to tonight, Clinton and Sanders took part in a CNN Town Hall forum in Derry last night. Did either candidate have a better night?

I think one thing I was struck by is the different questions that the people in the audience had for both candidates. When Bernie Sanders, there were a lot of questions about policy. How does this work? How will you do this? Will you raise my taxes? Can you actually pass some of these ideas you have?

And for Clinton, the questions were much more personal. Tell me about you. I want to peer into your soul. And that’s what so weird about it. She’s one of the most famous women in the world. We’ve seen her in New Hampshire now since 1991 and we’re still trying to get to the core essence of Hillary Clinton and whether or not we even like her. And that’s sort of the likability question with her or the trustworthiness questions with her. That’s the thing she needs to overcome. She can do that again in a moment tonight in a debate that can show her as a human being, while it may be harder for Bernie Sanders to make the argument on policy in the last couple of days.

Hillary Clinton at Wednesday night's CNN Town Hall Forum in Derry.
Credit Kate Brindley for NHPR

So, we now have tonight’s debate at UNH. It comes just a few days before voters head to the polls. What does each candidate need to accomplish tonight?

You just need to look at the state of the race here. Sanders is up. He’s up a lot. We’ve seen that number drop a little bit, be he has like a 20-something point lead. His job is to make this debate a non-event, period. If he can survive another day that she’s not collapsing his lead, then that’s another day he’s closer to winning the New Hampshire primary.

For Hillary Clinton, she’s going to have to play it a little cautious, though aggressive. She’ll have to do that balance because would she like to win New Hampshire? Would she like to make competitive? Yes, I mean if she does really well here, Bernie Sanders is done. There’s no other state going forward in the map where he’s even close to having the lead. He needs to win here. At the same time, because she’s winning everywhere else, she doesn’t need to be so aggressive and throw a Hail Mary pass that may screw her up down the line.

Given what we’re seeing in the polls, it seems like the Clinton camp is setting very low expectations here. She’s talking about the uphill road she faces. Is she already looking past New Hampshire?

No, they’re not. Look, I think expectations are low. Bernie Sanders took the lead here in early September and he’s pretty much held it. This has been Bernie Sanders country for much of the last six months or so. The interesting thing is the Clinton campaign has doubled down on this state. They brought in 150 staffers from their national office in Brooklyn. She is spending time here. She had a town hall meeting last night, she has the debate tonight, she’s going to appear at a major Democratic dinner tomorrow night. She couldn’t leave this state until Saturday if she tried.

Bernie Sanders
Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

There was some pushback from Sanders on the terms before committing to tonight’s debate. He wanted more to see more debates down the road after New Hampshire. Where do things stand there?

There’s an agreement now. There will be additional debates. There will be this debate, then three others down the calendar. Everyone got what they wanted. Hillary Clinton wanted a debate to question Bernie Sanders in a state where she’s far behind; he wanted three debates down the line to prove that he can take her toe to toe in states where she’s up by a lot. And frankly, New Hampshire won. It’s ridiculous that the Democratic National Committee that there should not be a debate between Iowa and New Hampshire in these final moments where New Hampshire voters make up their minds in the last minute. So this is a good thing for New Hampshire.