Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign is about to go live and unscripted.
Clinton launched her White House bid six months ago with a Web video and a series of carefully controlled roundtable discussions in front of small audiences. Her public events got bigger over the summer and she began sitting down for carefully chosen interviews in September. All that changes Tuesday, when she will stand at center stage at a Las Vegas casino for the first Democratic debate, where she'll face incoming attacks from four other candidates and questioning from Anderson Cooper and other CNN correspondents.
Nine days later, the former secretary of state will appear before the House Select Committee on Benghazi for long-awaited public testimony. At both events, she and her team know, even the smallest slip-up has the potential to overshadow an otherwise strong performance and to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of would-be supporters.
“This is a crucial test for her,” said former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who shared debate stages with Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. He eventually sided with Obama in that race and has backed Clinton this time around.
“She's got to show passion, she's got to show that she's progressive enough for the Democratic base,” even if not as liberal as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Richardson said. In 2008, Clinton “was the best debater of all the candidates” with a “wonkish, policy-oriented” approach, he added, though “Obama always had the best lines and dominated with his inspirational speaking.”
Like Richardson, other Clinton allies are generally optimistic in their outlook ahead of the debate, but are aware that Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley—who's hoping for a breakout moment on the debate stage—will be aggressive in their criticisms from the left. Clinton and her allies expect the media to pounce on even the slightest show of weakness from Clinton while being much more generous in their assessment of Sanders.
While regarded as a strong debater, Clinton has also had some bad nights on the debate stage, including in October 2007, when she stumbled over a question about making it possible for undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, saying in the span of a few minutes that she supported and opposed the move and then chastising moderator Tim Russert for asking a “gotcha” question.
That same defensive posture has been been evident during this cycle, too, as when Clinton grew testy with reporters when pushed on whether she had wiped clean her State Department-era e-mail server (“like with a cloth or something?”). There's the potential for her frustration to again flare up on this issue, the scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation or other vulnerabilities.
“Her key is to be humble while humble-bragging, find something to claim as an accomplishment, and focus on her mission to lift up women in contrast to all of the old men on the stage,” conservative blogger Ed Morrissey said. “Stay off the defense, attack Republicans, and scold her colleagues for not doing so. That won't suddenly reverse her slide, and more e-mail issues will still emerge, but she can stop the bleeding with a decent performance. If she acts haughty and/or defensive, look out.”
Clinton's formal debate preparations started weeks after the first Republican presidential candidate forum in early August, with mock sessions led by Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Biden who was part of Obama's 2012 debate team, and Karen Dunn, a litigator who worked for Clinton in the Senate and also coached Obama on debates. Clinton's book lawyer, Bob Barnett, who's channeled George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney in past debate prep sessions for Democratic candidates, has played Sanders, while top Clinton policy aide Jake Sullivan has played O'Malley. No one has stood in for Biden and the other two candidates who will be on the debate stage, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, aren't even an afterthought.
Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist and former Obama White House communications director who hasn't committed to Clinton or another candidate (and met with Biden over the summer), said she expects to see a strong Clinton performance. “She's very knowledgeable, she articulates her views very well,” Dunn said. “It's a format I think goes to many of her strengths. And, as you've seen with the Republican debates, with one woman on the stage, that woman really stands out and looks different just by being on stage. The contrast is already there.”
While the visual contrast between Clinton and four male competitors may work in her favor in the eyes of many viewers, her shifting positions on certain issues may make for a less flattering comparison as the other candidates attempt to cast her as flip-flopping or late to arrive at the positions favored by the left.
In the weeks leading up to the debate, Clinton came out against the Keystone XL pipeline and sided with the left again, and against the Obama administration, in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She also laid out a set of proposals last week that are tough on Wall Street but stop short of calling for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act and breaking up the big banks, which Sanders and O'Malley both advocate.
Sanders “can go after her like no one else” on her policy shifts on issues like the TPP because of his consistently liberal posture and his relative distance from the Obama administration, said Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic party who's been raising money for Draft Biden, the outside group that's encouraging Biden to run. “I think he's going to flail her.”
“At this point she's against the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Harpootlian added. “She was for it when she was in the Obama administration, while she was sitting at the Obama table, eating his food, enjoying his hospitality. The minute she was out the door she was like some catty houseguest commenting on how gaudy the decorations were. I think that's one of the biggest dangers she faces, that she's perceived as having sort of situational ethics, explaining why she feels compelled to disrespect a man who gave her the job of secretary of state.”
Sanders, with his insistence on not attacking his opponents, had set the tenor for how he and Clinton have interacted thus far in the race, with both stressing contrasts without taking on the other candidate directly. This weekend on NBC's Meet the Press, though, he took on a sharper tone, listing issues on which he believes Clinton has been inconsistent. “People will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary,” Sanders said.
O'Malley has for months been more direct than Sanders in his attacks on Clinton, often following up her policy announcements by welcoming her to his long-held positions. He's been pushing for more debates in what Democratic strategists largely see as an effort to get more attention from the media—and, thus, voters—by sharing a stage with and taking on Clinton. He's search of a big splash that will get him out of the low single digits in most polls and is expected to be aggressive in pursuing her.
Despite all the unknowns, Clinton's allies are still generally optimistic about how she'll perform in the debate, even if the media is harsh on her. But they're even more bullish about her prospects in her scheduled Oct. 22 appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. They point to her performance in January 2013, when she spent a full day testifying before the Senate and House foreign policy committees just a month after suffering a concussion and blood clot.
They also say the Republican-led probe into the 2012 attacks by Islamic militants that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, has been politically driven and that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's own inadvertent comments to the effect on Fox News late last month only helped to unravel his bid for House speaker. McCarthy acknowledged that his wording “wasn't helpful,” though that hasn't stopped Democrats from using it as a data point in their arguments on just far out on a limb the GOP has gone.
“Benghazi has done more to remind people how crazy the Republicans are than it has damaged Hillary,” said former Vermont governor and DNC chair Howard Dean, a Clinton supporter. “The hearing will reinforce that.”
Richardson said the hearing could be damaging to Clinton no matter how well she handles herself and no matter how badly Republicans behave. “It's another series of bad headlines that are out there, that's not positive, that the press is not talking about her new policies on immigration, trade, the economy. It's not a plus,” he said.
And even a strong performance like hers in early 2013 can create fodder for attack ads, like her out-of-context aside that's become the right's shorthand for arguing that Clinton didn't care about the victims of the Benghazi attack: “What difference, at this point, what difference does it make?”
Still, given that the hearing is part of Clinton's political reality, her allies expect she'll make the most of it. “If I were the Republicans, I would call off the Benghazi hearings,” said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter. “They can't win. She'll kill 'em.”
Rendell said Clinton's performances may influence Biden but not his immediate moves. “I think he's going to wait, see if something happens to Hillary, if she sinks, if she loses a couple early primaries to Bernie, and her campaign collapses, and then the party turns to him and says, 'Come on we need you.'
“I think if Hillary were to collapse, Joe would do it, but I don't think he wants to be the vehicle that causes her to collapse.”
—Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.
(Corrects year of Clinton's past Benghazi testimony in fourth from last paragraph.)