What was expected to be a relatively uneventful Democratic presidential debate this evening could have quite a few fireworks instead following a day of chaos and allegations over a data breach between the two top campaigns.
On Friday the Democratic National Committee shut off the Bernie Sanders campaign's access to its crucial data file after a software glitch allowed them to view proprietary information belonging to Hillary Clinton's campaign. But the Vermont senator's team argued the severe penalty after some staffers were found to have saved the private data was another way the DNC was showing favoritism to Clinton's campaign.
The campaign filed a federal lawsuit late Friday to restore its access, but a midnight resolution outside of court allowed Sanders to get access back to the data this morning.
Still, the war of words that escalated between the party committee and the Sanders and Clinton camps opened up a newly personal side in the Democratic race, with most of the rancor so far happening within the crowded GOP field. While Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver blasted the DNC for "actively attempting to undermine our campaign," Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called it an "egregious breach" of "stolen" data and accused the Sanders campaign of playing politics for fundraising off the dispute.
Now, less than 24 hours after the controversy reached its crescendo, the candidates will take the stage, and we'll see if their bravado reaches the same tenor as their surrogates' harsh words on Friday did.
"This data file is really important for campaigns today, so the lack of access to it could look like, to Sanders supporters, the final proof that the party is in the tank for Clinton," said Christopher Galdieri, a professor of political science at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, where the ABC broadcast debate is being held this evening starting at 8 p.m. ET.
Top Democrats dug in, though. Jim Messina, President Obama's 2012 campaign manager, tweeted that the blame lay with the Sanders campaign.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz pushed back earlier Friday against the Sanders campaign charges, too.
"The Sanders campaign doesn't have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there," she said on CNN. "It's like if you found the front door of a house unlocked and someone decided to go into the house and take things that didn't belong to them."
Still, the debate itself is another sticking point for Sanders supporters, along with backers of former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the third candidate who will be on the stage but who is polling far lower than either Sanders or Clinton.
Both have charged the DNC has purposely scheduled few debates to help the former secretary of state, even burying the past debate and tonight's on a Saturday night to limit exposure. Last month's debate ran up against several top college football games, and tonight's will be up against the Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Jets — not to mention being the last Saturday before Christmas, where many people are out at holiday parties or family functions.
For Sanders, the Granite State debate is especially crucial. Though Clinton has heavy leads nationally, he's led her in most New Hampshire polls and the state is becoming a must-win for his campaign.
"If he can't win here, it's tough to see anywhere else that he does," Galdieri explained. "Once you get to South Carolina and Nevada, it's much harder."
So Sanders could use the latest dust-up to try to attack Clinton Saturday night — something he's been hesitant to do — but even that could have its risk. And Democrats note the entire matter is complicated and highly technical, and might not translate well to the debate stage.
"I don't think this is an issue which will resonate with voters," said Mo Elleithee, director of Georgetown's Institute of Politics and Public Service and a past DNC communications director.
"When you have so few of these debates, you don't want to squander an opportunity to get back to your core message," said Elleithee, who worked on Clinton's 2008 campaign.
For Sanders, that's been a reliably populist message he's stuck to for decades. But while that may fire up his supporters, Sanders has to show he can move beyond his core economic arguments in an election that's increasingly turning on national security after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Foreign policy has never been Sanders's strong suit, while Clinton talks of the issues with ease after her years at the State Department. At the last debate, just one day after the Paris attacks, Sanders didn't seem comfortable discussing national security issues, though he and O'Malley did succeed in pushing Clinton on how she would differ from the Obama administration on foreign policy.
When Sanders was touring Baltimore earlier this month, just days after the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people, his campaign told reporters, "Don't ask about ISIS," feeding into the narrative that the senator didn't want to talk about national security or go off his planned topics.
Debate moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz likely won't let Sanders escape so easily on the issue, nor will his Democratic rivals.
"You've got to be able to be nimble and talk about it all, and that's been a challenge for Bernie Sanders so far," Elleithee said.
For O'Malley, who's struggling to get any traction with just over 43 days until the Iowa caucuses, he against needs any type of moment that could jumpstart his momentum. Expect him to needle Sanders again on gun control in the wake of more terrorist attacks — something the Vermont senator has had a more moderate record on than either Clinton or O'Malley.
For Clinton, she may be put on the defensive over possible favoritism from the DNC, but she can't look beyond the primary race just yet, even though she, more than any other candidate, has already turned her fire heavily on would-be GOP rivals in these debates.
"She can't ignore the fact that she's got two competitors within her own party," said Galdieri. "She still has to show that she's fighting for it and that she's concerned about Democrats, and not just general election voters."
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