WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley will head to Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday night for the final Democratic debate of 2015.
A weekend debate during the holiday season — when Americans are more likely to be gathered 'round the yule log at holiday parties than the TV to watch a debate — is unlikely to garner the same viewership as Tuesday's GOP debate. The debate is also competing with the NFL, as the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys face off at the same time.
Even worse news for viewership: The debate is for a primary contest that, at least right now, appears to be a foregone conclusion.
Nevertheless, coverage of the debate begins at 8 p.m. ET, and is hosted by ABC News. Here are five things to watch for.
Does Clinton break with Obama on year-end priorities?
President Barack Obama will stand before reporters Friday afternoon for a year-end press conference before jetting off to Hawaii for the holidays.
Questions are likely to arise about his response to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, where Obama is meeting with grieving families before continuing on to Hawaii. It will be notable whether Clinton, who must find the perfect balance of embracing and distancing from Obama to see success in a general election next fall, brings up disagreements with Obama's response to the shooting.
Does Sanders go negative?
Currently trailing Clinton by more than 20 points in the national primary polling average, Sanders needs to change the trajectory of the race if he has any shot at capturing the nomination.
Going negative is usually the tactic candidates use to draw contrasts and knock opponents down, but the Vermont senator prides himself on running positive races and shunning negative attacks. Even if he wanted to sharpen his tongue, he'd do so at the risk of blowback for reneging on his principles.
It's something he faced earlier this week, when he came under fire for airing a negative online ad that said Clinton was funded by special interests and the wealthy.
Sanders calls ad criticizing Clinton removed from his website a "gray area": "We are running a positive campaign."https://t.co/jDoCve6xEl
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) December 14, 2015
His campaign was also dealt a blow this week when the Democratic National Committee shut off his campaign's access to its voter list after a software glitch enabled at least one Sanders staffer access to voter information collected by Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Which Republican candidate will take the most heat?
All three Democratic contenders are likely to draw contrasts between themselves and the 14-candidate Republican primary field.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump, whose proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. has dominated media coverage over the past few weeks, is likely to bear the brunt of the Democratic furor.
But if another candidate's name is consistently brought up, it's a sign Democrats view that candidate as a threat; that person will be worth watching as primary contests near.
What DNC drama will arise?
The Democratic National Committee has been pilloried by pundits and activists alike, who say it's deliberately trying to suppress debate viewership by scheduling them on weekends.
If a debate happens when nobody is watching did it really happen at all? Weekend debates frustrate O'Malley, Sanders https://t.co/JpHkvsOrco
— Alan Rappeport (@arappeport) December 18, 2015
A day before the debate, the DNC punished Sanders' campaign for allegedly breaching Clinton's confidential voter data — which campaigns use to target potential supporters and build campaign strategy.
Sanders' campaign fired the staffer, but the DNC says his campaign will be unable to access the DNC's voter file database until it proves it did not keep any of Clinton's voter file information. It's an insider's game, but it could lead to fireworks on stage — both between the campaigns and directed at the DNC.
Does O'Malley throw a Hail Mary?
Gasping for air in a race that he's failed to gain traction in, O'Malley needs to break out during Saturday's debate.
But with his chances near zero at securing the nomination anyway, will may restrain himself to preserve his relationship with the other Democratic contenders in the hopes of having a continued role in 2016 — either on the vice presidential short list or as a cabinet appointee. Or maybe he'll go with full-throttle attack in hopes of shifting momentum his way.
All good questions to bring up around the yule log on Saturday while you're not watching the debate.
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