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Debate Preview: Taking the Fight to Clinton?

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Coming into tonight's Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (N.Y.) presidential campaign is surging.

As we noted earlier this week, a confluence of factors have effectively installed Clinton as the political establishment's candidate. And just yesterday she got great news here in New Hampshire when a new independent poll showed her with a whopping 23-point lead over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Those developments should (and we emphasize should) make Clinton the prime target tonight, as Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) are likely to step up their attacks on the frontrunner in a bid to peel off supporters from the New York Senator.

To date, these debates haven't always followed form, with the top-tier candidates generally willing to play nice with one another. The lone exception was in Chicago at the YearlyKos candidate forum in August, where Edwards and Obama ganged up on Clinton, forcing her into a somewhat awkward defense of lobbyists.

Unfortunately for Edwards and Obama, that forum was not televised -- meaning that not all that many people were exposed to a less-than-perfectly polished Clinton. By the next debate, Clinton was right back on script where she has stayed for the past month.

Finding a way to get Clinton off script tonight will likely be the goal for Obama and Edwards. A debate that simply revisits the campaign themes for each of the frontrunners (Obama -- change agent, Edwards -- populist outsider, Clinton -- establishment favorite) is a victory for Clinton. The longer the status quo governs the race and the closer we get to the first caucuses and primaries, the better for Clinton.

Our guess? Edwards will almost certainly take the fight to Clinton, seeking to cast the race as a battle between insiders and outsiders -- perhaps using Clinton's recently proposed health care plan as a launching pad. "John Edwards will 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 and the specific plans to boldly move this country in a different direction," said Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz.

For Obama, the chance to highlight differences with Clinton could come over this week's visit to New York by Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clinton has said in previous debates that she would not guarantee a meeting with someone like Ahmadinejad if she was president, while Obama has said he would leave all options on the table. It's a difference both campaigns believe works to their advantage, so if the issue comes up don't expect Clinton or Obama to back down.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 26, 2007; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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