What To Watch For In The Democratic Debate, As Primary Race Tightens Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O'Malley debate Sunday in Charleston, S.C. The Democratic race has is close between Clinton and Sanders.

What To Watch For In The Democratic Debate, As Primary Race Tightens

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The Democratic candidates for president will face off tonight. It is their last debate before voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have their say, and things have gotten interesting. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has pulled neck-and-neck with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the polls in Iowa, and he holds a significant lead in New Hampshire. Their debate tonight takes place in another important early primary state, South Carolina. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in Charleston, S.C., and she's with us now. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: So last week, Bernie Sanders was asked about the state of the race. And he said, quote, "it could be that the inevitable candidate for the Democratic nomination may not be so inevitable," unquote. So just how vulnerable is Hillary Clinton right now?

LIASSON: Well, she's vulnerable. The big question is whether her lead is actually evaporating, or is she just getting the scare of her life. You know, her campaign was prepared to lose New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders is from Vermont, and neighboring state politicians usually win there. But Iowa - losing Iowa would be a painful deja vu for her because she came in third there in 2008. And it turns out that the base of the Democratic Party like Sanders' anti-Wall Street message, which is directed against her ties to Wall Street. And recently, Sanders has been getting some help from Republicans, who would much prefer to run against him. The American Crossroads Republican superPAC has an ad blasting Hillary Clinton for taking money from Wall Street. So Sanders seems more authentic than she does. His promise to lead a political revolution is a little more inspiring than her promise to be a progressive that get things done. And, you know, Michel, there's one other irony here. Hillary Clinton had seemed to solidify her lead after the first couple of debates. But there have been so few Democratic debates - which, of course, her campaign thought was a good idea in the beginning - that it's left her without the opportunities to shine in a forum she is really good at.

MARTIN: You know, there's been a lot of talk about the sort of Republican establishment and what they're going to do about how they feel about the two frontrunners at the moment, Donald and Ted Cruz. What about on the Democratic side, the establishment? What are they saying and talking about with this Bernie Sanders surge?

LIASSON: It's really similar. It's just like the Republican elites and Donald Trump. Democrats in Washington think that if Sanders is the nominee, they would lose the White House. He would hurt the party down-ballot, wreck their chances of regaining the Senate. And, you know, the stakes are so much higher for Democrats this fall than Republicans because without the White House, they're in the minority almost everywhere - in the Senate, the House, the governor's mansion, state legislatures. Right now, Democrats have fewer elected officials nationally than at any time since the 1920s. So the other thing is the Democrats in Washington don't support Sanders' agenda. He wants to replace Obamacare with single-payer, Medicare for all. He wants to make public college free - not just debt-free, as Hillary Clinton proposes. And he wants to break up the big banks. That's not even part of the congressional Democratic agenda. Democrats don't even think a Democratic president could pass it.

MARTIN: So we mentioned that you were in South Carolina for the debate. And it is a critical early primary state. How does that location play into what we've just been talking about now? Is the location seen to benefit either Clinton or Sanders?

LIASSON: It definitely benefits Clinton. She has what her campaign considers a firewall in the South because of the large base of African-American voters. She is ahead in the polls there. But Jim Clyburn, who's the dean of the South Carolina Democratic delegation - he held his annual fish fry last night - he says that if Sanders gets big victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, that could change the dynamic in the South. Now, he is setting the bar high for Sanders. He says little victories wouldn't do it. But the big question is whether the firewall would disintegrate if Sanders wins one or both of the early states. No matter what happens, the Sanders campaign says they are very confident they can raise the money and build an organization if he can do well in the early states. So Sanders can go the distance, especially if he gets a catapult in Iowa.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Mara Liasson, awaiting tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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