Will Dems play nice at debate?

When the Democratic presidential hopefuls gather for the state's first debate of the primary season in Manchester on Sunday evening, Sherri Basso of Hampton hopes that a debate will actually break out.

"I'd like to see more differences between them and see them focus on specifics," said Basso, vice chairwoman of the Seacoast Young Democrats organization. "I'm more interested in hearing about the how and less about what they would do. Are they going to raise taxes? And what's their approach to universal health care?"

Basso said she has seen almost all of the Democratic contenders and remains uncommitted. "I'm open. There's still a lot of time and no need to make a decision right away," said Basso.

This is the earliest major debate in New Hampshire primary history, and for some of the eight Democrats who will take the stage Sunday, the skirmish could be a major make-or-break point in their candidacies due to the hyper pace of this primary period.

"For some candidates, they have to break the rules to get noticed," said Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire-based radio and television talk show host and former Democratic Party activist. "At the last Republican debate, Rudy Giuliani was crowned the winner because he broke the rules and went after another candidate (Texas Rep. Ron Paul). Who's going to break the rules Sunday night?"

Arnesen, a former state representative and candidate for governor in 1992, wondered, "Will the Democrats continue to play nice? Or will there be more challenges" to front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York?

In particular, Arnesen said she wants to see if New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — who gave what many considered a lackluster performance in the last Democratic debate in South Carolina — can capitalize on good recent polling news and buzz over an imaginative television ad highlighting his experience.

The debate at Saint Anselm College will be hosted by CNN, WMUR-TV in Manchester and the New Hampshire Union Leader. Clinton will be joined by Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware; Rep, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and former Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Mike Gravel of Alaska.

Who and how many will be watching a presidential primary debate in June could be surprising. Dean Spiliotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, said it won't just be political junkies and policy wonks.

"This will get more than your average amount of attention," Spiliotes said. And viewers might be looking for a feisty exchange. "People are wondering when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will begin to throw elbows at each other," Spiliotes said.