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5 things to watch in the Democratic town hall

Story highlights

  • The Democratic presidential contenders are set to make their closing arguments with Iowa's caucuses one week away
  • Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will each participate in a town hall hosted by the Iowa Democratic Party and Drake University and aired by CNN

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Time is running out.

With just a week left until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley will make their closing arguments Monday in a town hall hosted by the Iowa Democratic Party and Drake University and aired on CNN. The event, moderated by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, will air from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET and comes as Clinton and Sanders are neck and neck in the polls.
    Here are five things to watch for on Monday night:

    1. Which Hillary Clinton shows up?

    Clinton has vacillated between two tacks in recent weeks: The hard-nosed campaign puncher, taking direct aim at Sanders, and the pragmatic defender of Democratic values, focused on her own record and her ability to keep Republicans from unraveling President Barack Obama's work.
    The former secretary of state hit Sanders by name in Indianola on Thursday, casting him as a foreign policy novice with an unrealistic agenda, saying she is "not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world."
    Since then, though, she has spent much more time on her own record, drawing only implicit contrasts with Sanders. Even in stressing her own ability to achieve results, she hasn't tut-tutted the aspirations of the party's liberal base.
    Instead of hitting Sanders, Clinton is making the case that she is the obvious heir to Obama's legacy -- and the only candidate who could successfully build on what he has done.
    "Let's build on what we have. We have been moving, in our nation, thankfully, in a positive, progressive direction. Maybe not as fast as some hope, but we keep moving forward," Clinton said Sunday in Marion, Iowa.
    The version of Clinton that shows up Monday night could reveal whether she has found openings to confront Sanders without alienating his supporters just before the race's first votes are cast.

    2. Who wins the Obama argument?

    While Clinton is claiming the mantle to Obama's legacy, Sanders is reminding voters of his promise.
    It's a head-versus-heart argument -- and part of the broader theme of which candidate is most electable against a Republican in November.
    Clinton has latched herself to Obama's legacy, leveraging her four years in his administration to try to lock in her edge with minority voters. She's described herself as more of a party-builder focused on winning in midterms and on the state level, too.
    Sanders, though, has made sweeping cases that sound more like Obama in 2008 on topics like avoiding endless entanglements in the Middle East and offering universal health care.
    The Vermont senator made the comparison explicitly on Saturday in Clinton, Iowa.
    "Eight years ago, Obama was attacked for everything. He was unrealistic. His ideas were pie in the sky. He did not have the experience that was needed. But you know what, the people of Iowa saw through those attacks then and they're going to see through those attacks again," Sanders said.
    He's also begun working to appeal to the minority voters who were key to the Obama coalition -- but whose support Sanders hasn't yet won. He's recently started touring black historical sites and is appearing in Ebony magazine, but faces a challenge convincing black voters they should trust he will look out for their interests.
    Whoever makes the most cogent argument about Obama may have the strongest evening.

    3. Can Bernie Sanders add dimensions?

    Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, is within striking distance of beating Clinton in the first two early states -- a stunning feat in itself. The next question is whether he can build a path past Iowa and New Hampshire to the Democratic nomination, and that requires showing some depth.
    As he's risen in the polls, Sanders has done little so far to show any major changes in tone or message. But he has given a few clues that he is sensitive to the boundaries of his populist rage -- signaling an attempt to grow from the leader of a movement into a potential president.
    Sanders has also begun showing a little more personal depth on the trail -- proving that he may be crotchety, but at least a few people love him.
    During a stop in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Levi Sanders, his son from his first marriage, introduced him to the audience. He then made a rare pivot from attacking the conservative concept of "family values" to his own idea of "family values."
    "Now my wife Jane and I have been married for 27 years. We have four great kids, we got seven beautiful grandchildren, three of them here in New Hampshire. And we're very proud of our family and we believe strongly in family values," he said, pivoting to his plan for paid family leave.
    A deeply moving personal story it was not. But there was no mention of Wall Street or the "1%."

    4. Are the candidates talking foreign policy?

    When Democrats met two months ago for their second debate, the ISIS attacks on Paris had dominated the last 24 hours' news coverage and shifted the night's focus. It was no surprise when Clinton devoted her entire opening statement to foreign policy.
    Sanders, though, did raise eyebrows when midway through his opening remarks, he dropped the foreign policy talk and shifted to his bread-and-butter message of income inequality.
    At the time, it seemed to underscore his limitations.
    In retrospect, the moment showcased how Sanders has managed to build a movement: His discipline and relentless focus on his economic message have kept his potential supporters from matching his and Clinton's resumes and accomplishments issue-for-issue. His unwavering focus has drawn liberal supporters, even as his refusal to deviate from his core issues led the political media to direct its attention elsewhere.
    Clinton has sought to show off her much deeper experience in foreign policy in recent days, while her campaign has hit Sanders for suggesting normalizing relations with Iran.
    The issue gives her an opening to force voters who like Sanders' message to consider whether they can actually envision him in the Oval Office during crises overseas.
    If Sanders spends much time on foreign policy -- including potentially attacking Clinton for supporting the war in Iraq in 2002, which Sanders opposed -- it could signal that he views it as a weakness that needs shoring up.

    5. Where is the race's third wheel headed?

    Former Maryland Governor O'Malley has had to fight against his own insignificance, never breaking through in what's become a two-candidate race.
    He won't say what he'd consider a "win" in Iowa. But his biggest challenge now is convincing voters -- including his own small pool of devoted supporters -- to continue considering a contender who is all but certain to finish third.
    Making that task especially tough is the rule in Iowa Democratic caucuses that after the first round of voting, candidates who earn less than 15% support in that precinct are removed from consideration and their backers can shift into any other candidates' camp.
    Eyeing a tight race, both the Clinton and Sanders Iowa operations know exactly who O'Malley's backers are, and are working hard to become their second choices.
    O'Malley could put a thumb on the scale -- as he did in the last Democratic debate, over Wall Street -- by taking a particularly hard line against one of the two candidates.