Clinton shakes hands during a rally in Las Vegas Monday.

Clinton shakes hands during a rally in Las Vegas Monday. John Locher/AP

Pressure Points as Clinton, Sanders Square Off in First Debate

The Democratic battle brings opportunities and peril for the front-runners, and a chance for also-rans to become relevant.

LAS VE­GAS—When the 2016 Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial field con­venes here Tues­day night, they’ll do so with a clear schism in the field: It’s Hil­lary Clin­ton, Bernie Sanders, and every­body else.

And so when the five do meet for their first de­bate, they’ll be do­ing it with very dif­fi­cult goals in mind. For Clin­ton (still the front-run­ner) and Sanders (who has said he won’t go neg­at­ive), it’s about ar­tic­u­lat­ing an agenda, paint­ing a pos­it­ive per­sona, shor­ing up weak spots—and not mak­ing a ma­jor mis­take. And for every­one else (Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, Jim Webb, and Lin­coln Chafee) it’s about find­ing a mo­ment or two of ma­gic that sparks a can­did­acy that thus far has lived only in the mar­gins.

But no plan sur­vives first con­tact with the en­emy, and when the cam­er­as go on and the can­did­ates go live, there are any num­ber of dicey areas that could land the field’s lead­ers in trouble. Here’s Na­tion­al Journ­al’s list of the night’s biggest pres­sure points:

Can Hil­lary Clin­ton Turn the Corner on the Email Mess?

Clin­ton will take the stage as the storms clouds have par­ted just a bit in the private email scan­dal that’s dog­ging her cam­paign. The de­bate ar­rives just days after a former GOP staff mem­ber on the House Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Benghazi went pub­lic with al­leg­a­tions that the pan­el is con­duct­ing a polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated probe fo­cused on Clin­ton. And two weeks ago, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy gave Clin­ton her first break in a long time when he cred­ited the com­mit­tee with hurt­ing Clin­ton’s White House bid, a com­ment that roamed far afield of the GOP’s in­sist­ence that the in­vest­ig­a­tion isn’t polit­ic­al.

“The Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress have really giv­en her an open­ing to get past this story, and she can cer­tainly use this de­bate to take ad­vant­age of that,” said Demo­crat­ic strategist Chris Dur­lak. But Clin­ton, whose cam­paign has seized on the com­ments, has a fine line to walk: cast­ing the re­lated email and Benghazi probes as par­tis­an at­tacks without ap­pear­ing to down­play the sig­ni­fic­ance of the is­sues.

How Many Hits Does Clin­ton Take on Au­then­ti­city?

Clin­ton has worked in re­cent weeks to move left on a hand­ful of is­sues, from stat­ing her op­pos­i­tion to the Key­stone XL pipeline in late Septem­ber to an­noun­cing that she can’t sup­port the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal last week. While those moves have helped her prep for a de­bate against some of her pro­gress­ive rivals, it’s also drawn cri­ti­cism: As sec­ret­ary of State, Clin­ton was in­volved in ne­go­ti­ations for both is­sues, even go­ing as far as to call the TPP trade deal the “gold stand­ard” in 2012.

“Whatever she does, she has to do it genu­inely,” Demo­crat­ic ana­lyst Dav­id Axel­rod told Slate. “She is on double-secret su­per pro­ba­tion here when it comes to in­au­thenti­city, and I don’t think that the po­s­i­tion she took on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship the oth­er day has helped,” said Axel­rod, who was a top strategist on Pres­id­ent Obama’s cam­paigns.

Thus far, Sanders and the oth­er Demo­crats have poin­ted out Clin­ton’s in­con­sist­ent and chan­ging po­s­i­tions on is­sues like these, us­ing it as a way to ques­tion wheth­er she’s suf­fi­ciently in­ves­ted in any of them. And for Clin­ton, who’s of­ten been cri­ti­cized for her abil­ity to present her au­then­t­ic self to an audi­ence, the de­bate will be a key mo­ment for her to ex­plain some of those shifts.

Does Sanders Get Tripped Up by Gun Con­trol?

As more mass shoot­ings have shaken the na­tion and put at­ten­tion back on the gun-con­trol de­bate, Sanders has faced a real chal­lenge in ex­plain­ing his past votes and po­s­i­tions on some gun-con­trol meas­ures sup­por­ted by Clin­ton and oth­er Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates. Sanders voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, which in­tro­duced re­quired back­ground checks, and has also sup­por­ted le­gis­la­tion that pro­tects gun man­u­fac­tur­ers from li­ab­il­ity for gun deaths.

On Sunday, Sanders told Meet the Press that he’d be will­ing to re­con­sider his past sup­port for the li­ab­il­ity pro­tec­tions, sig­nal­ing a po­ten­tial shift in his po­s­i­tion. Mean­while, in an ef­fort to get out front on the is­sue, Clin­ton in­tro­duced a full set of policy pro­pos­als on gun con­trol last week.

“I think it is a prob­lem for [Sanders] and I think he knows it is a prob­lem for him,” said Mo El­leithee, a former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or who now heads the Geor­getown In­sti­tute of Polit­ics and Pub­lic Ser­vice. “He is be­gin­ning to shift his po­s­i­tion a little bit … he is go­ing to have to fig­ure out an an­swer that is go­ing to sat­is­fy some con­cerns.”

Can Mar­tin O’Mal­ley Get Any­where?

O’Mal­ley faces the highest stakes Tues­day. “He is run­ning the risk right now of be­com­ing the Demo­crat­ic Scott Walk­er,” said El­leithee, re­fer­ring to the Wis­con­sin gov­ernor who got early buzz in the GOP race, but then cratered. El­leithee, who worked on Clin­ton’s 2008 race, said O’Mal­ley badly needs a “break­through mo­ment.” O’Mal­ley has tried to po­s­i­tion him­self as the pro­gress­ive al­tern­at­ive to Clin­ton, but it hasn’t worked out that way. He’s polling num­bers are lan­guish­ing un­der 1 per­cent des­pite a vig­or­ous cam­paign. “I think Mar­tin O’Mal­ley is the wild card,” said Demo­crat­ic ana­lyst Jamal Sim­mons, who says O’Mal­ley could po­ten­tially pick up steam, and has the most to gain and the least to lose.

While O’Mal­ley has signaled that he’ll fo­cus on his own re­cord, fist­icuffs may be in the off­ing. Let’s turn back to Axel­rod: “I think that there will be fire­works in this de­bate. I think they are likely to come from Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, who star­ted off as a ser­i­ous can­did­ate and is now down in as­ter­isk land, and is des­per­ately try­ing to breathe some life in­to his can­did­acy. I wouldn’t be shocked if he goes hard after Hil­lary in this de­bate, to try and seize back some of the ini­ti­at­ive, par­tic­u­larly on the left that Bernie Sanders has really stolen from him.”

Will Clin­ton and Sanders Fight in Close Quar­ters?

Clin­ton and Sanders them­selves have largely played nice so far, bey­ond some tame stuff such as Sanders not­ing that Clin­ton is a late ar­rival in the Key­stone pipeline fight. Some strategists warn that any­one look­ing for Trump-worthy barbs between the rivals in Las Ve­gas will be dis­ap­poin­ted.

“Why would Bernie Sanders at­tack Hil­lary Clin­ton?” Sim­mons asked. He notes that Sanders is already gain­ing on her, and his whole cam­paign is fo­cused heav­ily on re­turn­ing eco­nom­ic power to the middle and work­ing class. “He has got the best mes­sage-ori­ented cam­paign of any Demo­crat,” Sim­mons said. He also noted that the first de­bate of a nom­in­at­ing con­test is of­ten more tame. “You have more de­bates ahead, and you don’t want to make a mis­take, and it’s about get­ting a feel for the stage and mak­ing sure you are com­fort­able and really ready to do battle when people are pay­ing more at­ten­tion,” he said.

Demo­crat­ic strategist Maria Car­dona had a sim­il­ar pre­dic­tion, ar­guing that it doesn’t suit the in­terest of Clin­ton or Sanders, who is still in­tro­du­cing him­self to a wider na­tion­al audi­ence, to go on the at­tack right now. “I don’t know that it will be­hoove either one of them to at­tack each oth­er,” said Car­dona. “They both need and or want the oth­er’s sup­port­ers. The last thing they want to do is ali­en­ate the folks that the oth­er one brings to the table.”

How Does Pres­id­ent Obama Factor In­to the De­bate?

Clin­ton’s move left on TPP and the Key­stone pipeline do more than help her de­flect cri­ti­cism from her Demo­crat­ic rivals—they also rep­res­ent a big break with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, of which Clin­ton was a part for four years.

How much dis­tance that Clin­ton ul­ti­mately puts between her­self and the White House is a ma­jor ques­tion bey­ond just De­bate Night. And what’s more, her Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents have also worked to con­trast them­selves with the sit­ting pres­id­ent. The ways in which they do that—and how overtly they do it—is a big in­dic­at­or of how the primary will pro­gress go­ing for­ward.