MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We spent a lot of time this year talking about the presidential race, but let's face it, we've been focused on the Republican side where there have been a lot of fireworks and 17 candidates at one point to consider. The Democratic side isn't as crowded. There are only five in the race so far. But they get their star turn this week when they come together for the first debate. It's in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been following the race closely, and she's with us now to give us a preview. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So there are five candidates, and we're going to get to that. But really, the focus is on three people - Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton of course and Vice President Joe Biden. Let's take those one by one, and let's start with the one who isn't even there - Joe Biden.
LIASSON: Yes. And, you know, Joe Biden isn't there, and this debate comes at a pretty unsettled moment in the Democratic primary race because he is still trying to make up his mind about getting in. But one of the reasons that the race is so unsettled and why Biden is considering a late entry is that the front runner, Hillary Clinton, has not been dominant. And Democrats I talked to are worried about her weaknesses as a general election candidate. She has gotten a much-stronger-than-expected challenge from Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who is beating her in the polls in New Hampshire and shrinking the gap with her in Iowa polls and getting huge crowds in plenty of other places. So all of that is the political backdrop for the debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
MARTIN: So let's talk about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Can you tell us what each one has on his or her side going into it?
LIASSON: Well, Clinton is the only one who has debated on a national stage before. She has done very well in debates. She spends a tremendous amount of time preparing. She's a real work horse. This is a big opportunity for her to show off her command of policy and to try to do with a big national audience what she's been trying to do in smaller campaign events, which is make a connection with Democratic voters.
Sanders, on the other hand, has been successful in his Vermont debates, but he hasn't ever done it on a national stage. And he is said not to be doing extensive, meticulous debate prep. But this is also a very big opportunity for him to get his message of economic populism onto a national stage. And that message has gotten him a very long way in the primary. It's also a chance for him to make some comparisons with Hillary Clinton. His campaign put out a press release today about his foreign-policy record showing that he had been consistently progressive and antiwar. That's an implicit comparison with Clinton who supported the Iraq war before she opposed it. But one thing that most Democrats I talked to do not expect to happen on Tuesday is personal, direct attacks. Sanders says he won't do it, and Hillary Clinton has also refrained from taking Sanders on directly because she doesn't want to alienate Sanders' voters. She will need them down the road.
MARTIN: And why won't Bernie Sanders?
LIASSON: He says he doesn't believe in it; he just doesn't do it.
MARTIN: OK. Now - and Senator Clinton has come out - or former Secretary of State Clinton has come out with a lot of policy positions in the last week. Tell me what's that all about. It's kind of interesting that somebody who's been in public life as long as she has been has felt the need to do this, but she does.
LIASSON: Yes, and I think the Tuesday deadline - the debate was really pushing her because now there's no question going into the debate where she stands on the Trans-Pacific trade deal, on Keystone on the Cadillac Tax and on Obamacare. To in some ways, she's been co-opting his message. Her task, according to Democrats that I talked to, is not to obliterate Bernie Sanders. It's to showcase herself and take advantage of a national audience when the subject is not 100 percent about emails.
MARTIN: We can't let you go without asking about the other three. That's the former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island and Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia. Of the three of them, is any one of them poised to break out?
LIASSON: Well, they all would like to, but several Democrats are predicting that the candidate who will gain the most from the debate is Martin O'Malley. Now, yes O'Malley has nowhere to go but up, but he is the only young candidate, the only new-generation candidate in the race. And he's been starved for oxygen because Bernie Sanders has emerged with all the alternative to Hillary energy. And that's one of the reasons why O'Malley has been pushing for more debates because this is really his only chance to get voters to know who he is.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you, Michel.
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