Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Vegas debate could better define Hillary Clinton’s campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke last month at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke last month at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Bloomberg News

Hillary Clinton has spent much of this year being defined by the Republican opposition.

Whether she can better define herself on her own terms and convince Democratic voters that she is, in fact, trustworthy, genuine and on the side of the people remains the big question looming over her presidential campaign. Joe Biden appears to be waiting in the wings on the chance that she will fail to get dominant traction very soon.

The first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, featuring five candidates, may be a ho-hum affair for the great majority of people. Certainly it will lack the magnetic qualities of the first two Republican debates. But it could well provide a defining moment of Clinton’s campaign. And Biden’s, though he probably will not be on the stage. And let’s not forget the churning upswell of Bernie Sanders, who’ll be making, essentially, his national debut.

Democratic voters have certainly been entertained by the debate circus in the other party. They deserve to be encouraged by the utter shallowness of the Donald Trump phenomenon, by the GOP’s outsider festival and by the astounding failure of the onetime heir apparent, Jeb Bush, to catch any spark at all.

But Democrats know the 2016 election cycle will be hard work, regardless of who lands the Republican nomination. So they’ll be watching for Clinton, especially, to show she has what it takes and can stoke their enthusiasm.

Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to secure the nomination. The big money, the ground game, the power people — it all adds up, despite the polls that show lingering strength for Sanders. If, somehow, she cannot finally shake the email-server bulldog snapping at her feet, then the Democratic reset option may well involve Biden.

Clinton just made another one of her transparently calculated stands on a controversial issue, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although she had championed the trade agreement as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton is now playing to the party’s labor-union base — and Bernie Sanders’ core — by voicing opposition to the newly crafted pact. Yet, as usual, she finessed the maneuver and left the door open for reversing her reversal by suggesting she hadn’t actually read the whole thing.

But what will debate watchers hope to see on Tuesday night?

For starters: solid, convincing analysis and program proposals on boosting jobs and the economy. There’ll be lots of talk about income inequality, social safety nets, the influence of Wall Street and big banks — and there likely won’t be much space between positions espoused by Clinton, Sanders and the others.

But voters will also want to hear how the candidates would handle the morass in the Middle East and the rising audacity of Vladimir Putin and the Russian power play over Syria.

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I spoke long distance the other day to a media class at Fontbonne College in St. Louis and fielded one young woman’s plea that the candidates solve her crushing student-loan situation.

Debate watchers will also get their first real glimpse of three candidates who hardly register in the polls — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and former Senator and Navy Secretary James Webb of Virginia. Will any of them present a swashbuckling, Carly Fiorina moment?

O’Malley has been hammering hard on immigration, voicing an accommodating position — not unlike that of his fellow candidates — and hoping to gain traction with Latino voters. Chafee presumably will explain just why he’s running and how his campaign theme of “prosperity through peace” would really work. Webb’s experience in the military and as a bestselling novelist might make him an intriguing case.

If you end up tuning in, see you around the water cooler thereafter.

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