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Democrat debate or 'Downton Abbey' tonight?

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton debate at Saint Anselm College on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Manchester, N.H. Martin O'Malley also participated in the third Democratic debate. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

Bernie Sanders or Bates the valet? Hillary Clinton or Carson the butler? Who are the latte-sipping liberals and PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” lovers (many who may even have those dreaded New York values, like fasting on Yom Kippur) are going to tune in to see at 9 tonight? “

And why are they being forced to make the choice?

Much has been made about how few presidential debates the Democrats are having. This will be the fourth of six, to the GOP’s 11. More is being made of how much the Democratic debates seem designed to hide the candidates from public view, rather than highlighting them. And it’s not just Fox News and the GOP saying this. Two out of the three Democrats running, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have complained that the Democratic National Committee and its chair, long-time Clintonista Debbie Wasserman Schultz, purposely structured  the debates to keep people from seeing Hillary Clinton challenged.

This will be the third Democratic debate in a row held on a weekend, and the third overall held against ridiculously stiff competition. The first aired during a Dodgers-Mets playoff game (New York values AND Los Angeles values!). The second went up against a stiff lineup of crucial late-season college football games. The Dec. 19 debate didn’t face too much programming competition beyond airing on a Saturday evening the weekend before Christmas.

Now we have the squaring-off against the heart of the final season of “Downton Abbey.”
The battle comes at an interesting time in both story arcs. For the Democrats, Sanders’ poll numbers are scaring Clinton, and she seems to be getting more aggressive in attacking a candidate who until now she has wanted to portray as kindly ol’ Uncle Bernie. The storyline has been, “Sure, he has a pure, folksy wisdom, but I CAN GET THINGS DONE.” The problem is the fear among the base that she doesn’t mean to accomplish the things they actually want done, and Bernie does.

Sanders’ popularity, much like Donald Trump’s, is a reflection of class tensions with which local viewers of “Downton Abbey” are well acquainted.

Like the dwellers of “Downton’s” grand halls and service corridors, voters reluctantly watch a world that seems on the brim of world war. Like them, we race to keep up as new technology replaces the engines of our economy and our place within it. Like them, we dream of what new paths to opportunity and prosperity this change will clear, and fear that it won’t.

The polls now show there is a reasonable chance a surging Sanders could win in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton would then have to head to South Carolina and Nevada arguing that she is the presumptive nominee who a lot of Democrats don’t actually want to vote for. We’ve seen this movie before, or a similar one. It was called “2008.” It starred Barack Obama. It had a different plot twist in that Clinton did win New Hampshire popular vote (barely) and the two tied in the delegate count in that state, but that only makes the argument that this sequel is Sanders’ show all the more compelling.

Most people have a DVR. The debate will air again at 11 p.m. on MSNBC after running on NBC at 9. And PBS reruns “Downton” more than The Weather Channel reruns temperature forecasts. Clearly, most of us can eventually see everything we’re interested in.