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Michael A. Cohen

Debate will turn on policy wonkery — or Trump’s Twitter feed

The stage was prepared Tuesday ahead of the first official Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. REUTERS

It’s quite possible that the most exciting moment at tonight’s first Democratic debate will not be delivered by anyone on stage — but rather will come from Donald Trump’s promise to live tweet the event. At the least, cyber Trump will likely throw more punches than the five Democratic candidates for president.

Think of this first debate as the opening round in a 15-round fight; a feeling-out process among the candidates as they jockey for position and try to avoid acting too aggressively for fear of getting knocked out.

Three of the candidates on stage — Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee — are, by and large, blank slates to Democratic voters. Bernie Sanders is better known, but is nowhere close to Hillary Clinton’s near-universal recognition. So even for him, the debate is an opportunity to introduce himself. It’s hard to imagine that he or the three other candidates are going to make their opening pitch to primary voters by aggressively attacking the party’s popular front-runner.

Clinton has a similarly straightforward goal — to make no mistakes, to focus her attention on the Republicans, and to cast the aura of a candidate thinking about the general election rather than worrying about a primary race she is the odds-on favorite to win.

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It’s not as if the candidates would even have that much on which to disagree. Now that Clinton has moved closer to Sanders on trade policy, the major gaps between these candidates are hard to discern. The differences that exist are ones of degree and emphasis rather than serious policy disagreement. Indeed, the most effective critique of Clinton would be on issues of personality, temperament, and the need for new blood at the helm of the party. Those are arguments that the candidates will have to make eventually if they have any hope of unseating Clinton, but this debate is not the best night to do it. That kind of attack will need to wait for a later round.

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So if your preference is for wonkish debates on serious policy issues, tonight could be your night. For the rest of you — keep an eye on Trump’s twitter feed.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.