The top two contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination are about as different as they come. Secretary Clinton, the unquestioned front runner, is a true politician. Senator Sanders, a formidable challenger, is an unabashed Democratic-Socialist and refuses to participate in the typical mud-slinging that has defined our politics for decades. Who "wins" the debate tonight could foretell what type of politician the Democratic base wants.
It's difficult for me to over dramatize how dramatically different Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders styles are. Clinton is the ever careful politician who tends to stick to talking points and be very careful with every word she says. She is the quintessential politician and may come across as too practiced, but she's also proven that she can fight Republicans at every step of the way throughout her career. She also undoubtedly believes that she is the only person who could carry the Democrats to victory in 2016 and that it would be a fatal error for Democrats to vote for Sanders over her.
Senator Sanders, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. He often speaks without notes and is possibly one of the most passionate politicians I have seen in quite some time. He's packing arena's throughout the country and his economic populist message his certainly struck a chord with a large swath of the Democratic base. And before you write him off as having no chance at all, I will remind you that then Senator Obama was given next to zero chance of toppling the Clinton machine and look how that worked out for the Clinton's. Senator Sanders is also drawing much larger crowds than Senator Obama was back in the early stages of the 2008 election, so if I were Secretary Clinton then I would be taking Senator Sanders very seriously and if she doesn't she is doing so at her own peril.
If I were to predict how these two will conduct themselves at the first debate I would guess that Secretary Clinton will be very cautious with how she debates Senator Sanders. He has sparked a fire in the base of the Democratic Party and attacking him too hard may very well end up backfiring on her. A majority of Americans and even bigger majority of Democrats back his positions on a wide variety of issues, so attacking his positions on things that the vast majority of Democrats agree with probably isn't the best idea for her.
There will be three more people sharing the stage with the two front runners tonight, but there is little to no point of discussing them much. Two of them are former Republicans who somehow have convinced themselves that Democrats would even consider voting for them and the other, former governor Martin O'Malley just hasn't been able to register a blip on the radar. One of these three may have a breakout performance tonight that breathes life into their campaigns, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Another elephant in the room looming over this debate is what Vice President Biden plans to do. He is almost certain to be absent from the first debate, but that doesn't mean he has ruled out a run. If he jumps in the race then who knows what will happen.
So this debate will come down to how Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders conduct themselves. Will they both play nice or will one or both of them take the gloves off early and go on the attack? It's a good thing we don't have to wait much longer to find out.