WASHINGTON — The Democratic presidential candidates are meeting for their third debate Saturday, with tensions suddenly boiling between Hillary Clinton and her chief rival, Bernie Sanders.
Revelations that campaign workers for Sanders improperly accessed voter data compiled by the Clinton campaign have thrown a wild card into a debate that was shaping up to be centered on national security.
Already, Sanders had been struggling to get airtime for his economic-focused message when others are talking about keeping the country safe after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and California. Now, he also must answer charges about his campaign.
READ MORE: After data breach, Democratic race explodes with allegations of theft, misconduct
In a jarring departure from what had been a genteel contest, the Clinton team is accusing the Sanders campaign of stealing information about potential voters worth millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the Sanders people accuse the Democratic National Committee of heavy-handed hijinks to smooth Clinton’s path to the nomination. The DNC removed the Sanders team’s access to the voter files as part of its investigation into the data breach, but said it would restore access Saturday.
What’s unclear — and a prime issue to watch for in the debate — is whether and how much the candidates themselves clash over the bad blood now spilling from their campaigns.
For Clinton, who has a commanding lead of 20 points or more in most national polls, the question is whether she tries to capitalize on the controversy. Or, does she see greater value in taking a pass — and not alienating Sanders’ backers, whose grassroots support Clinton will need in the general election should she win her party’s nomination?
WATCH: Bernie Sanders staffer fired after allegedly accessing Clinton’s voter files
All of this may present an opening for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s running out of opportunities to have a break-out moment.
Here’s what to watch for in ABC’s debate in Manchester, New Hampshire:
Both Clinton and Sanders have remained notably silent since news of the data breach spread Friday. That’s unlikely to hold Saturday night, when they’ll surely be asked about it. The Sanders campaign sued the DNC Friday night in an effort to regain access to its own voter data, but the two sides came to an agreement and the DNC agreed to restore access Saturday.
Already, Sanders’ campaign has tried to turn a misdeed into a strength, saying his underdog campaign is being held “hostage” by a Democratic party leadership that’s in the tank for Clinton. He’s likely to make the same argument from the debate stage — even while participating in the party-sponsored forum — despite his insistence in past debates on sticking to public policy.
In the first Democratic debate, Sanders conspicuously avoided exploiting a Clinton vulnerability, her past email practices, saying the matter was irrelevant. One question is whether that grace note will constrain Clinton in going after him on the data breach.
SANDERS SEEKS AIRTIME
Sanders is fighting to stay relevant in a race that’s moved away from his message — you could even say his obsession.
He wants to talk about income inequality. He wants to talk about college affordability. And he wants to talk about money in politics. But the country wants to talk about terrorism, a request Clinton is happy to oblige.
Recent days have brought signs that he may take a tougher tack to regain ground. Last weekend, his campaign pulled down a digital ad portraying Clinton as a candidate backed by “big money interests,” an apparent violation of his pledge to avoid attack ads.
CLINTON’S FOREIGN POLICY RECORD
Republicans are eager to tie Clinton to the unpopular foreign policy agenda of her former boss, President Barack Obama. While she’s shied away from directly criticizing the White House, Clinton has proposed a more aggressive strategy to defeat the Islamic State group.
Look for her to play up her experience as secretary of state, casting herself as a strong leader in a scary world. Her opponents, meanwhile, can be expected to highlight her 2002 Senate vote authorizing military action in Iraq — legislation Sanders opposed — in an attempt to appeal to anti-war Democrats.
CLINTON ON OFFENSE, BUT AGAINST WHOM?
Even as her aides say they expect tight primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton has been intensifying her focus on her would-be Republican challengers, including front-runner Donald Trump. Clinton aides believe that reminding Democrats of whom they may be up against in November helps motivate her voters while underscoring their argument that Clinton would be the most electable choice against the Republican nominee.
Does she spend more time going after Republicans or, in light of the data breach, those next to her on the debate stage?
O’MALLEY’S LAST CHANCE?
O’Malley is surging! Unfortunately for him, it’s from 2 percent to 4 percent.
Since entering the race in the spring, O’Malley has struggled to break 5 percent in polls. In November, he accepted public funding to bolster his flagging campaign, a move that could constrain his ability to compete down the road by imposing strict spending limits.
With the first round of voting just six weeks away, this debate is one of his last chances to make his case to a broad audience.
WILL ANYONE WATCH?
Debates have turned into big business for cable news networks this year, breaking viewership records. Twenty-five million people watched the first Republican debate. And 15.3 million watched the first Democratic debate in October.
Don’t expect those kinds of numbers this time. The last Democratic debate of 2015 is on a Saturday night less than a week before Christmas, just as one of the two previous debates was on a Saturday night. Viewership is expected to be low — a fact that’s infuriated O’Malley, Sanders and other Democratic advocates, who argue that party leaders are rigging the process to benefit Clinton.