Tuesday's Democratic debate is a very big deal, especially for front-runner Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders will probably exceed expectations because many viewers will be seeing him for the first time, certainly for the first time against Clinton. The other three candidates will likely find themselves far back -- this is narrowing to a two person contest.
Clinton needs to get out of a self-infecting cycle of bad publicity, in which everything she does is dismissed as calculating and contrived, even when it represents creative movement on issues. Sanders merely needs to take care to come across as fighting for the forgotten American on the issues, as he nearly always does, but not too radical in his personal style.
In the past few weeks, Clinton has made several dramatic moves in Sanders' direction. She has broken with the Administration on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, on the Keystone Pipeline and on the so-called Cadillac Tax on high quality health plans (she is for repeal; the White House is not). She is out-flanking Sanders to the left on gun control, and she is at least as comfortable talking about race.
These positions are attractive to the Sanders constituency. One can expect that Clinton is saving one or two more headline-grabbing surprises for the debate -- quite possibly something on workers' wages. The question is whether viewers and pundits will credit her for this movement, or just discount it as mere posturing.
There are also some popular issues where Clinton simply can't get to Sanders' left, such as his proposal to break up the big banks. That's simple and clear. Clinton, who gets a lot of Wall Street support, is for tighter regulation, a position that quickly degenerates into wonky detail.
Clinton, in short, is necessarily playing a much more complex game than Sanders. Much of her posture is directed at a potential candidate who will not be on stage -- Joe Biden. A great deal of her positioning is aimed not just at Sanders, but at dissuading Biden from getting into the race.
Unlike Clinton, Biden as sitting vice president cannot break with Obama on the TPP, the pipeline, or the health insurance tax. By moving in Sanders' direction on all these issues, she not only appeals to his constituency, but jams Biden.
In the inside game, Clinton needs to persuade the activists associated with the Democratic Party, especially the labor movement, that she can be as much their champion as Sanders can. She needs to reassure her own core supporters (who might be tempted to defect to Biden) that her candidacy is not fatally damaged by recent missteps.
In the outside game, Clinton needs to persuade ordinary voters that she is a better bet to beat any Republican than Sanders or any other Democrat. And in the horse-race optics, she needs to persuade the media that she beat expectations. In short, she has a much tougher job than Sanders, who can just be himself.
One key question is just how tactical ordinary Democratic viewers will be in their perceptions of the debate. Will they go with their gut, or base their support on who they think will be the strongest candidate against any Republican?
Logically, that should be Clinton. As she runs more as a pocketbook progressive, in principle she should be able to take some of Sanders' appeal without being tarnished by his seeming radicalism. She ought to be the stronger nominee in the general election.
However, this is far from an ordinary year. In both parties, the disgust with a political system that seems paralyzed and with an economy of, by, and for the one percent, leaves radicalism far more attractive the usual.
This is also a very unusual year in another respect. The Republicans now hold a larger majority in the House of Representatives than at any time since the 1920s. Because of gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic support in heavily blue districts, the conventional view is that only about 15 House seats will be in play in 2016. It will take a complete implosion of the Republican Party and a landslide for the Democrats for them to pick up the 30 seats they need to regain control of the House.
However, the Republicans might be setting themselves up for just such an implosion. The GOP presidential field is a circus. At the rate things are going, Donald Trump could well be the nominee, because all the primaries after March 15 award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis. With the rest of the field splintered, Trump only needs to hold his roughly 25 percent share and he wins most delegates.
With Trump having alienated women, immigrants, minorities, and voters who actually follow issues, it's hard to imagine the Democrat not winning in a landslide.
(On the other hand, one has to recall a famous incident attributed to Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 campaign, in which a gushing supporter told him, "Governor, you will have the support of every thinking person." To which he replied, "Madame, that's not enough, we need a majority.")
If the Republican presidential contest were not a sufficient zoo, the anarchy in the House of Representatives trumps even Trump. But with the House elected district- by-district, the question is whether the leaderless House and the ability of some 40 fringe Tea-Party Republicans to hold the whole institution hostage will tarnish the Republican brand in a way that helps Democrats.
That, it seems to me, is partly a question of the ability of the Democratic standard-bearer to lead and to define the stakes. So Tuesday's debate, first and foremost, is not just a contest over positioning on the issues, but an audition to determine who would be the most effective candidate against an increasingly insane Republican Party.