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Opinion

The safe bets and long shots of the Democrats’ Las Vegas debate

Top of the Ticket: Democratic debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are expected to have strong showings in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Vice President Joe Biden is the race’s wild card.

(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

For months, watching the crowded field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has proved to be wonderfully entertaining, but the debate between the Democratic candidates in Las Vegas on Tuesday night will provide a reality check. Though Donald Trump and his dozen-plus straight men have put on a great show, it’s worth remembering that a Democrat has won five out of the last six presidential elections. Anything can happen, obviously, but demographics and patterns of voter turnout give one of the five people on the Wynn Casino’s debate stage the best shot at the presidency.

Bookmakers could grab some quick cash by betting that the majority of voters cannot name more than two of the Democratic candidates and a side bet says most cannot identify more than one. Only Hillary Clinton, probably the most famous woman in the world, is on everyone’s radar. It will be interesting to see how much that changes after the debate. Will anyone rise from obscurity the way Carly Fiorina did in the GOP race by turning in a solid debate performance?

Is there a Democratic Fiorina or Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee? For a better conception of where each of the Democrats is positioned in the campaign, let me offer comparisons to specific Republican aspirants. Let’s start with the most obscure Democrat, Lincoln Chafee.

Chafee is the Jim Gilmore of the Democratic race. Who is Jim Gilmore? That’s the point, exactly. You might have missed Gilmore if you did not watch the first “kids’ table” GOP debate back in July. Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia, did not embarrass himself at all, but neither did he impress anyone in the second tier face-off in which Fiorina did so well. He has subsequently disappeared from the campaign. Chafee, a former governor and senator from Rhode Island is a serious, decent man who says he is following the example of Jimmy Carter in 1976 who, in Chafee’s words, “plodded away and talked about the issues that were important to him” and surprised everyone by winning.

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It is far more likely Chafee will go the way of Gilmore.

Jim Webb is the George Pataki of the Democrats. Pataki, the former governor of New York, has a solid resumé, but his more centrist politics put him at odds with the hardcore conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries. Webb served one term as senator from Virginia and was secretary of the Navy at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term as president. His more centrist politics put him at odds with the liberals who carry the most weight in the Democratic primaries.

Unlike Pataki, though, Webb might have a tiny opening if the other candidates split the liberal vote because, unlike the GOP, there still are centrists in the Democratic Party. More likely, though, Webb will end up on somebody’s list of possible running mates if he shines in the debate.

This may sound overly harsh, but Martin O’Malley is probably the Scott Walker of the Democratic side. O’Malley is not as smarmy as the Wisconsin governor who dropped out of the running after failing to live up to expectations. Like Walker, though, O’Malley — the former Maryland governor — is a guy whose candidacy makes tremendous sense in theory, but who has not caught fire with voters. Similar to Walker, O’Malley comes across as too rehearsed. In several appearances in front of the friendly cameras at MSNBC, O’Malley was unable to utter a thought or phrase that did not come off like a prepared text.

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Still, if anyone breaks through in Las Vegas, it is likely to be O’Malley. He is smart and experienced and that could pay off if he appears polished rather than plastic.

The Donald Trump of the Democrats is Bernie Sanders — but only in terms of the surprise factor. (Unlike Trump, the Vermont senator has an impressive command of facts and policy.) Early on, no one expected Trump’s candidacy to be more than a novelty; now he leads all  his competitors and continues to hog media attention. The conveyors of conventional wisdom did not expect Sanders to go anywhere, either, but he has topped Clinton in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls and draws big crowds wherever he goes. Nationally, he has substantially cut into Clinton’s lead and has nearly matched her in fundraising.

Sanders has a reputation as a great debater. This week’s debate could raise his popularity even higher, especially if he — like Trump — connects with voters who feel the economic game is rigged against them.

And then there’s Clinton. Until recently, the obvious person to compare her with was Jeb Bush, another bearer of a famous political name with establishment backing and a bounteous campaign war chest. But Bush has plummeted in the polls while Clinton still maintains a shaky lead. Clinton is a very good debater, unlike Bush. As long as she doesn’t crack a rib bumping into a slot machine on her way to the debate stage, she should do just fine on Tuesday night.

Even after the debate, expect Clinton to remain the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination — unless Vice President Joe Biden decides to run. Then, all bets are off.


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