I've already given you my under-the-bus, snarky take on tonight's first Democratic presidential debate. (If you've not read it yet, start there, as I'll allude to it a bit here.)
Now, courtesy of this good analysis by MSNBC, here's my real take on the debate tonight. It's going to be by candidate, in terms of who's got what to win or lose, how they should try to do that, and my guesstimate as to what they'll actually do.
Hillary Clinton: I'm going to disagree with MSNBC, and Chuck Todd in particular, who's probably the one who said she needs to be the policy wonk. Nooo ... she needs to be the "lighten up" person, like Hillary impersonator Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live:
She needs to be that above all else, someone lightened up, and not the buttoned down, let out no information Hillary Clinton of record. Will she be? Probably not. She'll probably, like a bad football coach, be playing this debate in "not to lose" mode rather than "win" mode.
(And, if you want a debate drinking game, could shots for "Benghazi" be it?)
Bernie Sanders: It's arguable that Clinton has the most not to lose, or the most to lose, and that's why she'll play in that mode. Sanders has the most to win. Horse-race media reporting has ignored everybody else on the list. At the same time, he's got almost as much to lose.
His booming popularity bubble could be burst if the curmudgeonly cute Sanders of shorter sound bites is the curmudgeonly uncute Sanders of an entire debate. He's got even more to lose if he goes beyond curmudgeonly to grumpy, let alone explosive, old man as the oldest person in the debate. As for most to win? He's got the chance to show that he's got substance behind his ideas, and that he can be someone who's at least halfway charming, and an effective national-level retail politician.
Whether by repeated use of the actual word "socialist" or something else, he also needs to defang that. I think he'll be more successful than unsuccessful. He's already started on it; now, in a non-geeky, non-curmudgeonly way, he needs to connect this with clear public polling support for socialist ideas.
(If you want another debate drinking game, shots for "socialist" is it!)
Martin O'Malley: He's probably got the second-most to win. Every day that Joe Biden doesn't enter the race, especially if it's another day that Clinton has a new drip, drip, drip on either her emails or political flip-flopping, is another day for O'Malley to gain ground as an "establishment" alternative to Clinton. However, until Biden officially rules out a run (if he does), O'Malley remains on tenterhooks, unable to get traction.
His goal is to show that he's more than just an empty neoliberal suit, appealing to the establishment as more a "win" rather than "not lose" candidate than Clinton, and progressive enough, even if faintly so, to have a bit of appeal to Sanders backers, especially if Sanders stumbles.
Jim Webb: His goal is to both convince social liberals that they need to take his outreach to Southern and Midwestern non-urban whites seriously, and to convince them that he's not flying a flag of convenience on recent conversion to some social liberal positions. He's got little to lose, but I suspect he'll be unsuccessful. Sanders, though not Southern Scotch-Irish, has a more convincing political viewpoint and metaphysics behind his own outreach to those folks, and I think Webb's conversion isn't that deep.
Lincoln Chafee: His goal is to convince a few people that he's a horse for the course, and deserves consideration as an alternative to both Clinton AND O'Malley. He's got as little to lose and as much to win as Webb.
Joe Biden, in absentia: He's got a lot to win, if Clinton stumbles. That's especially true if Sanders comes out in full-on "get off my lawn you kids" mode. Should Clinton not stumble too badly, and especially should O'Malley obliquely call out Biden for his no-show, he loses. Otherwise, while he missed my Labor Day deadline, if he wants to run, he's got some hard calendar dates in early primary states looming.
The public: The public has a lot to win if Sanders does well. It has something to win, even, if Clinton does well. We, especially we liberal voters, have a lot to lose if both of them stumble. We also lose by not having the Full Monty of JoePa Biden, humor, potential gaffes and all.
(That said, the public wins also if Sanders defangs not just the word "socialist," but the ideas enough to help Dr. Jill Stein or whomever is the 2016 Green Party nominee.)
Elbow-throwing: On a 1-10 scale, I expect 3.5 elbows. Candidates will be more about staking out their own positions this time. But, because the Dems have fewer debates, depending on how this one goes, the second one will have plenty of sharp elbows.