Summer-Long Course Could Take a Turn as Democrats Cross Paths

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 8.14.17 AMADAM NAGOURNEY  Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Good Tuesday morning. Its debate day, and the two main (official) Democratic candidates will at last stand lectern by lectern in front of a national audience. While the debate will include three other candidates including Martin OMalley who hope to mirror Carly Fiorinas debate-fueled rise in the Republican polls, the showdown between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will give them a chance to either build on, or alter, their seemingly divergent momentums.

For the last six months, Mrs. Clinton has been pounded by questions about her private email server, declining poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the unsettling threat of a challenge from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. By contrast, Mr. Sanders has been riding a mostly uncritical wave of support, drawing huge crowds at outsize rallies, nearly matching Mrs. Clinton in raising millions of dollars and rousing Democrats with his outsider, populist appeal.

This dynamic could take a sharp turn on Tuesday night with the first Democratic debate. For Mrs. Clinton, the CNN debate in Las Vegas offers her a chance to break through the barrage and make her case, to reset the clock of her candidacy before a huge audience. And this will be a relatively new kind of venue for Mr. Sanders: He will find himself on a small stage that permits a head-to-head matchup with Mrs. Clinton, rather than at another rally.

No doubt, Mr. Sanders will, as he has for months, be the subject of considerable interest. Does he confront Mrs. Clinton, and if so, with what kinds of issues? Will he play down the socialist side of his political résumé in the glare of what, it seems safe to say, will be the biggest television audience he has ever encountered?
Still, this debate is going to be about Mrs. Clinton, just as the first Republican debate was about Donald J. Trump. Mrs. Clinton has the most to gain and the most to lose. She has the advantage of having done this before. But she has the challenge of facing an audience that has followed her career on the public stage since 1992, with many voters holding long-formed opinions of her that might be difficult to change.