While the Republican race for president kicked off its debate series a couple months ago, the much more condensed and less hotly contested Democratic field appeared for the first time on the national stage last night as CNN presented its first debate.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had widely been considered the de-facto nominee, but after a large scandal involving her use of a private email server to send classified material as Secretary of State, Clinton’s numbers dropped. In the wake of this event, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “Democratic Socialist,” began closing the gap and established polling leads in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. The two finally met last night in Las Vegas, a city not normally known for politics, but which served as the focal point for this highly anticipated showdown.
Both major candidates started off the night with opening statements focusing on talking points that their respective campaigns have been centered around. Sanders delivered a fiery statement decrying massive income inequality and special interests in politics. Meanwhile, Clinton focused her statement on empowering women and minorities to gain added rights and achieve success. Both were able to effectively convey their messages throughout the debate, with Clinton portraying herself as “an outsider candidate” due to her gender giving her a unique perspective on issues, while Sanders criticized “the casino capitalism projects” and “Wall Street greed.” He also pledged his support for tuition-free public universities along with expanded health care, which he says will be made possible by raising taxes on high income earners.
The debate covered a wide swath of issues, ranging from foreign policy to economic plans to proposed social reforms. Moderator Anderson Cooper brought some hard-hitting questions to the table, interrogating Sanders for his support of communist forces in Nicaragua and active avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War. Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and notable flip flops were also brought up, which ultimately allowed Sanders to get the most popular soundbite of the night when he said the “American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” which resulted in a standing ovation. Sanders did, however, appear to be flustered when asked about foreign policy. When questioned about what he would do about the growing presence of Russian airstrikes in Syria, he offered only a vague response that “Mr.Putin will regret this.”
The lower polling candidates on the stage seemed to be overshadowed, receiving far less talking time and failing to cement themselves as legitimate contenders. Former Virginia Governor Jim Webb seemed angered that he wasn’t getting a much time as his opponents, leading to a clash with Anderson Cooper about unfair time allocation. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had strong talking points about his experience as an elected official—a time during which he pushed for gun control and an end to institutional racism—but he ultimately seemed out-shined by Clinton and Sanders. Former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee seemed to be the overall loser of the debate, with a rough night culminating in his own admission that he neither read nor understood one of the first laws he voted for in the Senate.
Post-debate commentary by pundits and flash polls seem to indicate that while Clinton performed well, Sanders also had a positive impact on viewers and remains a viable threat to Clinton’s path to the nomination. Though the actual primary elections are still months away, it appears the Democratic nominee race—once considered a cinch for the former first lady—will be a hotly contested two- or even three-way battle.