The 6 comms strategies to watch in the first Democratic debate

With two debates down for the Republican candidates, the Democrats finally take the stage on Tuesday.

Image via Gage Skidmore (Bernie Sanders) and Steve Jurvetson (Hillary Clinton) / Wikimedia Commons; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license; cropped, resized, and combined from original

Unfortunately for late-night TV writers, there will be no Donald Trump at the first Democratic debate. Instead, the bright lights will be squarely on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Here are six things I’ll be looking for when the candidates take the stage in Las Vegas.

The 800-pound donkey in the room
Minus a dramatic, unexpected, WWE-style entrance, Vice President Joe Biden probably won’t be on-stage next week with the declared candidates. But his presence, and possible entry into the race, will be felt in other ways. Look for the candidates to squirm a little if asked about how they feel about the veep getting into the fray. They’ll have to at least look sincere; cynical people (reporters) will be watching. (A smart take by Hilary Rosen of the just acquired SKDKnickerbocker here).

Will viewers change the channel?
One area where the Republicans have the Democrats beat hands down this election cycle is entertainment value, thanks to Donald Trump. Will the candidates be able to keep viewers’ attention? CNN has scheduled two hours for the Democratic debate – albeit with fewer candidates – compared with three for the most recent GOP tussle. US News & World Report’s Mary Kate Cary says not to expect the candidates to attack each other – or to be funny.

The ‘real’ Hillary Clinton
Democratic operatives have been promising to show the "real Hillary Clinton" for months, with mixed results. The former secretary of state will be in front of her largest audience in years next Tuesday, so expect her to go heavy on personal anecdotes, demonstrating she has heartfelt reasons for seeking the presidency a second time other than pure ambition. Clinton is funnier and more empathic than many people realize.

The too real Bernie Sanders?
Bernie Sanders, who is leading Clinton in New Hampshire according to various polls, is  cramming for the first debate, eschewing weeks of debate prep favored by other candidates, according to Politico. I don’t expect him to be antagonistic, but the pressure will be on Sanders in the biggest political event of his life.

Focus on gun control
The hot-button topic is sure to get ample attention on Tuesday, which will take place less than two weeks after a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon took the lives of 10 people. Looking at the issue in strictly political terms, it’s one where Clinton can go to the left of Sanders to reach primary voters.

The other guys
Martin O’Malley. Jim Webb. Lincoln Chafee.

O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland has the best chance to break away from the second-level pack on Tuesday. With his campaign stuck in the mud for months, Tuesday night is his best opportunity to break out.

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.

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