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Democrats Prepare for Granite State Debate

Debate preparations at Dartmouth's Spaulding Auditorium. (Joseph Mehling/Dartmouth).

As Democratic presidential candidates prepare for their next debate tonight, Sen. Barack Obama's advisers are already setting expectations for how he will perform. "Look for Obama to show the country why he's the one candidate who won't just change the party in the White House, but will change the broken politics of Washington that has stood in the way of our progress on health care, education, energy and other critical issues for far too long," his campaign said in a statement early Wednesday.

Obama trails the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in national polls and in New Hampshire, the first primary state and the site of the debate--on the campus of Dartmouth -- tonight from 9-11 p.m. His lagging standing has prompted speculation that he may begin shifting tactics in the weeks ahead-- perhaps pursuing Clinton more aggressively, or at least drawing sharper distinctions between himself and his greatest rival for the nomination.

Clinton, for her part, is likely to stay focused on her own issues as she has in past debates--especially coming off a week when she drove the political agenda by rolling out her health care proposal and appeared on all five Sunday talk shows. Her advisers believe the debates so far have helped solidify her lead, and will continue to do so, showing off her level of preparation and depth of knowledge on issues.

Former Sen. John Edwards has been the feistiest member of the top tier, both in past debates and on the campaign trail, and it would not be surprising to see him take shots at his top two rivals. (An Edwards spokesman would predict only that Edwards would "remind voters the choice they face in this election between a candidate who defends the broken system in Washington or someone who has the strength to fight for real change.") Look for breakout moments from others in the field as well: in the last forum, an AARP debate last week in Iowa, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware let loose on Clinton and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Sen. Chris Dodd has been consistently fiery in his answers.

And Richardson, according to a spokesman, will "continue to press his message that he has the best and only plan to truly end the war in Iraq." Richardson supports a swift and complete withdrawal of US troops, while most of the other candidates have allowed room for leaving some troops on the ground into the future. "This country needs a leader with the hands-on experience of a commander-in-chief, and Richardson is the only candidate in the field who can lay claim to that title," his spokesman said.

What's at stake for the candidates? With the end of the third quarter approaching, all of the contenders are hoping to generate excitement that prompts supporters to send in money. (The Obama campaign has said it expects to raise around $17 to $19 million this quarter, about the same as the Clinton team). And the campaigns believe that voters are actually starting to pay attention, now that Labor Day has passed and the first caucus in Iowa is actually on the horizon. Moderated by Tim Russert of NBC, the panel is also likely include some sharp questioning -- though so far, in recent Democratic debates, even the sharpest moderators have not shifted the dynamic of the Democratic field.

Tonight's debate will be the third of six officially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, which stepped in to help impose limits earlier this year. The next, on Oct. 30, is in Philadelphia; then there will be a debate on Nov. 15 in Las Vegas; the last is in Los Angeles on Dec. 10. In between, keep an eye out for unofficial debates sponsored by special interest groups (Obama has already said he will skip most of those), and later on, there will be more debates in the early contest states.

--Anne E. Kornblut

By Washington Post editors  |  September 26, 2007; 2:29 PM ET
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