Saturday’s debate highlights how events put Sanders at a disadvantage

Saturday’s Democratic debate underscored the sense of urgency that surrounds the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Having caught fire over the summer, the Vermont senator appears to have plateaued. He has just six weeks to expand his appeal and show that his grass-roots army is actually capable of toppling Hillary Clinton.

As much as they admire what he has done in this campaign, few in the Democratic Party believe that is possible. In the past two months, the Democratic nomination contest has settled into a quiet zone, with Clinton again seen as a prohibitive front-runner.

Whatever vulnerabilities she might have in a general election, and she does, Clinton is again a prohibitive favorite to win the her party’s nomination, despite the enthusiasm that Sanders’s anti-establishment campaign has generated and despite polls showing him leading in New Hampshire and not far behind in Iowa.

If Saturday’s debate was supposed to be the vehicle for Sanders to change the dynamic, it probably did not. He began by apologizing to Clinton for his staffers accessing data from her campaign and complimented her at the end. In between, he tried to draw distinctions, but what the forum underscored is the degree to which the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have reshaped the campaign to the disadvantage of the Vermont senator.

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The opening hour of the debate, when viewership probably was higher, focused heavily on issues of terrorism and national security, where Clinton is seen as stronger, rather than on the issues at the core of Sanders’s candidacy, the economy, income inequality and the plight of the middle and working classes.

Sanders drew sharp differences with Clinton over the use of military force in the fight against Islamic state militants and seeking to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad, warning that she is “a little bit” too aggressive in seeking regime change, whether there or in Iraq or Libya. He argued that the overriding priority should be the destruction of the Islamic State, warning that toppling dictators has produced unintended consequences in Iraq and Libya. But in the end, this part of the debate was on Clinton’s turf, not Sanders’s.

Sanders was animated and energetic, but at one point, when he pivoted in the middle of an answer about terrorism and national security to talk about economic insecurity, it was clear how the new environment frustrates his efforts to keep the focus on his main message. Meanwhile, Clinton repeatedly drew contrasts with the Republicans, seeking to signal to those in her party that they should see her as their strongest standard-bearer in a general election.

The sense of urgency for Sanders was evident even before he, Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley took the stage Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. His handling late in the week of a dispute with the Democratic National Committee over a data breach had all the elements of a campaign looking for a spark to re-energize the progressive movement that brought his candidacy unexpectedly to prominence.

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The Sanders campaign was guilty of obtaining proprietary data from Clinton’s campaign that was contained in a massive Democratic National Committee voter file. They were able to do so because of a software failure at the DNC that briefly eliminated the firewall meant to keep every campaign’s information private.

But aided by a clumsy overreaction by DNC officials, who blocked his campaign from accessing their own data, Sanders sought to turn an embarrassing situation into a rallying cry against the establishment. His campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, accused party leaders of deliberately trying to sabotage their campaign in an effort help Clinton.

Even after the DNC agreed to let Sanders access his data, a resolution that suggested all parties were ready to stand down, the Sanders campaign continued to stoke anti-establishment anger and poke at the Clinton campaign – aided by some of his progressive allies.

That Sanders finds himself needing a shot of energy is surprising, given what he has already done this year. He has assembled a following of loyal progressives, young and old, who represent one more version of the anti-establishment anger coursing through the country, much as Donald Trump’s populist appeals have brought him to the top of the polls in the Republican race. That alone is an accomplishment that few would have predicted earlier this year.

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Late last week, his campaign announced that it has now received more than 2 million individual contributions. Only President Obama in his reelection campaign amassed that many donations at this point in the 2012 cycle. That milestone of small-donor money coincided with an endorsement from a major labor union, the Communications Workers of America, as well as from Democracy for America, a progressive grass-roots organization.

Still, what the Democratic campaign lacks is the sense of forward motion and change of the kind seen in the Republican race. Although Trump dominates GOP polls, other skirmishes, such as the one between Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, show the fluidity of that contest, the changing fortunes of the candidates and the unpredictability of the outcome.

Sanders strategist Tad Devine said Friday that he feels good about the state of the senator’s campaign in New Hampshire and argued that “we’re in striking distance in Iowa and we have a substantial amount of resources and can run more than a two-state campaign.”

He has remained strong in New Hampshire, even after Clinton rebalanced her candidacy after a shaky summer. He is within striking distance in Iowa, but coming close there might not be enough – many Democrats now see Iowa as a must-win for him.

Without a victory there, a win in New Hampshire could be discounted, given the advantage he has because of his proximity as senator from neighboring Vermont. That’s because the terrain becomes far more difficult after that, given Clinton’s strong support among African Americans who play a bigger role in some of the later states.

As Sanders has appealed to the progressive grass-roots, Clinton has continued to consolidate her position. Whether Sanders can jolt the Democratic campaign anew when it resumes in earnest in two weeks is now his main challenge.