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Why it's great when your debate opponent says your name, in 3 charts

Candidates usually say their opponents’ names for one specific reason: to attack them.

In preparation for tonight's Democratic debate, we analyzed transcripts from the 2008 Democratic primary debates to see whose name was uttered most often by an opponent. We found that if you’re worth attacking, you’re probably doing well in the polls. Once your opponents start ignoring you, you’re in big trouble.

Given what happened in 2008, here’s what to watch for tonight:

It’s a good thing when an opponent says your name

During the 2008 primary season, opponents criticized Hillary Clinton by name more times than any other candidate, which makes sense since she was the early frontrunner. The first debate was April 2007, but by the June 3 debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, opponents mentioned her by name more than a dozen times — and it didn’t let up. It was a tight race, and Barack Obama and John Edwards heard their names quite often, as well.

The three of them duked it out, with both Edwards and Clinton being bombarded with attacks by early 2008.

As the field winnowed down, candidates more aggressively called out their opponents, although part of this is because the format of the later debates allowed for more back and forth.

Major Republicans get criticized by name, too

In 2008, Democratic candidates used George W. Bush’s name more often than their opponents’ in several debates. In one right before Halloween 2007, Joe Biden blamed Bush for the collapse of the housing market; Clinton criticized Bush for decreasing funding for the National Institutes of Health; and Dennis Kucinich said he would cancel the Bush tax cuts.

Democrats piled on — until it was clear John McCain would be the Republican nominee, at which point the focus shifted to him.

Everyone else will be ignored

Here’s a wager: Clinton won’t utter the words "Lincoln Chafee" tonight.

In 2008, Clinton — and everyone else polling in double digits — ignored guys like Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and Chris Dodd until they petered out of the election.

Their names were occasionally uttered when they proposed an idea and another candidate wanted to jump on the bandwagon, like when Obama agreed with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that immigration reform was a public safety issue. In fact, both Richardson and Joe Biden stayed relevant long enough to take a few punches and shape the debates.

You also heard non-frontrunner names when they interrupted another candidate, like when Obama had to say to Gravel, "Let — let — let — let — let me — let me finish, Mike."