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It's Hillary Clinton's turn to debate tonight - what can she expect?

She is probably going to be ganged up on.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

THE FIRST MAJOR stop on the road to the White House takes place for Democratic hopefuls tonight – and Hillary Clinton will be hoping she can withstand a barrage of criticism.

The clear front-runner in the race to succeed Barack Obama, Clinton (who is polling 42% of support among Democrats) must first secure her party’s nomination for next November’s election.

That race kicks off in earnest tonight in The Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, as CNN hosts the first debate of the Democratic primary season.

While the Republican debates have become big ratings grabbers for networks, the Democratic debate is expected to be more substantive, if much less exciting.

The debate will feature five candidates, barring a late entry from Vice President Joe Biden, with four hoping to break into the American mainstream consciousness while on a stage next to a Clinton.

They are:

Bernie Sanders – Senator, Vermont

DEM 2016 Sanders Source: AP/Press Association Images

He’s polling at 25% nationally and had a stellar summer, breaking his way into the race after being seen as too far to the left previously. But does he have the staying power?

The democratic socialist is fundraising well among small donors, but lacks the resources of a Clinton or Biden and that will hurt him over the Christmas and January periods.

However, a good performance tonight will see him continue dragging the Democrats to the left. He has avoided criticising Clinton, preferring to stick to the issues.

He will be loathe to get personal with the former First Lady, but will definitely outline where he and Clinton are different.

Will that be enough for American voters?

Martin O’Malley – former Governor of Maryland

DEM 2016 O'Malley Source: AP/Press Association Images

O’Malley has never hidden his ambition to climb the ladder of US politics, but that doesn’t mean he’s an empty shirt.

He is staunchly liberal on gay rights, guns and inequality, but will appeal to moderates because of his zero-tolerance stance on policing while mayor of Baltimore.

He will emphasise his life-long party membership, a contrast to Sanders, and try to slot himself to Clinton’s left.

Expect him to come out all guns blazing – at just 1% in national polls, he needs a big performance to still be in with a chance when the first votes are cast in February.

Lincoln Chafee – former Governor of Rhode Island

DEM 2016 Debate Field Guide Source: AP/Press Association Images

Chafee, like O’Malley, has lost a lot of attention to Sanders.

Initially expected to be a disruptor in the race, he has fallen into a no-man’s land over the summer.

A ferocious debater, Chafee will attack Clinton on foreign policy and could be a wild card.

Polling below 1%, a poor performance could end his race.

Jim Webb – former Senator, Virginia

DEM 2016 Webb Source: Charlie Riedel

A decorated soldier and former Secretary of the Navy and assistant Defence Secretary, Webb will go after everyone in the debate on foreign and military policy.

Webb has been lost in the shuffle in a very small field, which doesn’t bode well.

Both he and Chafee will take hope from the example of Carly Fiorina in the Republican debates, who proved that a couple of good nights can lift a campaign.

Clinton

For Hillary Clinton, the challenge tonight is appearing presidential, but not evasive, engaged, but not condescending. It will be a tough rope to walk.

While many see the deficiencies in both parties making this a procession to a coronation, Clinton will know from 2008 how quickly a campaign can go south.

The debate kicks off at 1.30am Irish time. 

Read: Is it time America had a woman president?

Read: If you try to attack Donald Trump, “you’re gonna be shocked”

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