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Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las Vegas


Tonight, it's the Democrats' turn. The five presidential candidates will meet in Las Vegas this evening for their first debate of the 2016 campaign. NPR's Tamara Keith is there. She's been covering the Democratic primary, and she joins us from the media center of the debate. Set the stage for us. What's going to happen tonight?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There will be five candidates up on the stage, some of whom Americans have seen a lot of, like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and then some others who people probably haven't seen that much of. This campaign has thus far been pretty wonky. It's been white papers and policy proposals and town hall meetings, and this is going to be the first chance to see these candidates together, comparing their policies.

The moderator, Anderson Cooper, says don't expect this to be a slugfest. He's not out to create a slugfest, unlike the GOP debate where they really were going after each other. It's more likely that these candidates are going to spend time drawing contrasts on policy but not really attacking each other.

MCEVERS: And at center stage will be candidate Hillary Clinton. What is she going to talk about tonight?

KEITH: For the last six months, Hillary Clinton has been talking about all kinds of things - college affordability, early childhood education access, all kinds of things. But what most voters have been hearing is about her emails. And so tonight, Hillary Clinton is coming on the stage trying to break through and be something more than the candidate who had a private email server in her basement.

I talked to one of her campaign advisors who said that her goal with this is really to remind people of who she is and to come through as someone who both cares about what their concerns are and someone who could actually get things done for them. She's definitely putting herself forward as the person who has feasible policy solutions.

MCEVERS: And what about her main Democratic challenger right now, Bernie Sanders? He's proven to be a surprisingly strong and resilient candidate. What does he need to do tonight?

KEITH: Bernie Sanders, in some ways, has to introduce himself to voters. He's - he is polling quite well, but he is a senator from Vermont, an Independent senator from Vermont who a lot of Americans don't know that much about. So in some ways, he has to introduce himself.

He also, for 30 years, has been talking about income inequality. He's very proud of the fact that he has been pushing on this issue for a very long time. But he's likely to get questions about things that he doesn't talk as much about, things like gun control and foreign policy. And so a big test for Bernie Sanders on this very big stage - a much bigger stage than he's ever been on before - is to show voters that he isn't just a one-issue kind of candidate.

MCEVERS: OK. And there will be three other candidates on the stage. Tell us about them.

KEITH: Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, former Virginia senator and Navy secretary Jim Webb, former Rhode Island senator and governor and former Republican Lincoln Chafee. That is the other three. In part, their big goal is to get people to know who they are (laughter), to stand out. All of them are polling in the low single digits, as in 1 percent or no percent.

And so their goal on this stage is to say, hi (laughter), nice to meet you, voters. And one question, especially with Martin O'Malley, is, does he come after the frontrunners? Does he come after Clinton and Sanders? And there are mixed opinions around the Wynn Hotel here where the debate will happen about whether he will do that or not.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tamara Keith in Las Vegas. Tamara, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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