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Democrats’ Thursday debate: Four things to watch

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures during the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center Jan. 17 in Charleston, S.C. (Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures during the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center Jan. 17 in Charleston, S.C. (Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press)
Anita Kumar Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – The presidential debate Thursday night will reflect a changing Democratic race.

In the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, will look to alter her strategy after her narrow win over Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses Monday.

Polls show Sanders, who has galvanized a new crop of Democrats, including many younger, first-time, low-income voters in his quest to rid the country of the so-called billionaire class, with a big lead in the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday.

The two-hour debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, airing on MSNBC and starting at 6 p.m. PST, will feature only Sanders and Clinton after Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race Monday night.

The event was arranged at the last minute after the candidates agreed to debate again between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests as has been tradition for decades. The Democratic National Committee only agreed to authorize the debate Wednesday.

Here’s what to look for:

Does Clinton change her strategy?

Clinton must decide how she will alter her strategy in response to her narrow win in Iowa and likely loss in New Hampshire. But don’t expect big dramatic changes.

She is likely to do only some fine-tuning as she downplays the significance of a Sanders’ win in New Hampshire and tries to look to Nevada, South Carolina and the next set of states to vote that are more likely to back her.

Clinton will continue to tout policy proposals – she has rolled out more than two dozen of them on everything from repairing roads to combating the Islamic State terrorist group – but try to drill down more on a message.

Political observers say Clinton should not attack Sanders, but find ways to court younger voters and liberals who have flocked to Sanders.

“I would not expect panic mode or her to go on the attack,” said Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.

How does Sanders appeal to minorities?

If he wants to remain a viable candidate in the Democratic candidate, Sanders will have to appeal to more than white voters.

Sanders is strong with white, rural voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but needs to broaden his appeal to the large minorities he will face in Nevada and South Carolina and beyond.

In Nevada, which holds caucuses Feb. 20, Latinos made up nearly one in five voters in 2008. In South Carolina, which holds a primary Feb. 27, more than half of the primary voters in 2008 were black.

Sanders needs to make sure minority communities understand that his central message of income inequality pertains to them as well as other issues he has spoken about, including criminal justice reform.

A two-person race

The decision by O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, to drop out of the race this week changes the dynamic of the debate.

Clinton and Sanders have always been the main draw at the debates but other candidates have gotten considerable time to talk, including O’Malley and two others who dropped out early on, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

With just two people on stage, the event is likely to be more aggressive because there are no other candidates to break up the discussion or distract with their own criticisms or one-liners. O’Malley, for example, often attacked Clinton and Sanders, occasionally bringing up the generational differences between him and the others.

“The dynamics change because there are two people,” said Wayne Lesperance, director of the New England College Polling Institute. “It’s more confrontational.”

Drug addiction

In a state suffering from a drug epidemic, combating the growing addiction to opiates and opioids has become a campaign issue for both Democrats and Republicans.

Clinton and Sanders have both pledged to treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a crime. Sanders’ nearby home state of Vermont has been hit particularly hard by heroin addiction.

Clinton has unveiled a $10 billion plan to boost treatment and recovery programs, ensure that first responders have drugs needed to stop opioid overdoses from becoming fatal and direct states prioritize treatment over jail for nonviolent and low-level federal drug offenders. Sanders said pharmaceutical companies should be accountable for their products and the consequences of drug overdoses.

The question about the drug epidemic has been asked before. Clinton and Sanders don’t appear to have any significant policy differences, but their responses have given them the opportunity to humanize themselves. Clinton, for example, has delivered some of her best lines about this issue in past debates and speeches, explaining how surprised she was by how widespread the problem was when she started visiting New Hampshire last year.

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