by PABLO ROA
After a summer of controversy, surprise and speculation in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the five candidates finally met on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday night.
The candidates discussed a variety of issues, both foreign and domestic, and outlined how they would lead the country forward if they were elected president in 2016. The debate was the first of six debates scheduled before the Democrats select their nominee next year.
For frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tuesday’s debate was about shifting the focus of her campaign from the ongoing email controversy that has hampered her campaign for months to actual policy objectives. For Senator Bernie Sanders, who is gaining on Clinton in early-voting states but still trails nationally, the debate was about spreading his message to those who may not know him yet and showing the Democratic Party that he is a viable alternative to Clinton.
For the other three candidates—Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee—the debate was about getting noticed. According to polling averages on RealClearPolitics, all three candidates were polling under 1 percent prior to the debate and need to improve their national recognition to stand a chance.
With all of this in mind, here are five takeaways from last night’s debate:
1) Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Steal the Show
In the days leading up to the event, much of the focus was on Clinton and Sanders—How would Clinton confront the surging senator from Vermont? How would Sanders confront Clinton?
One thing that was clear about the debate was that Clinton and Sanders were head and shoulders above the other candidates in terms of performance. Both candidates were prepared and confident on the stage and took up most of the speaking time, with Clinton talking for 30 minutes and Sanders for 26. O’Malley came in third with 16 minutes of speaking time.
As to how the two candidates confronted each other, the debate went mostly as expected. Neither launched a significant attack on the other—though Clinton was surprisingly direct in her criticism of Sanders’ views on gun control—and both candidates seemed determined to stick to the issues.
While the other three candidates struggled to stand out, Clinton and Sanders both made their marks on the debate and were able to push forward their agendas.
2) Sanders Helps Clinton With Email Scandal
One of the biggest questions leading up to the debate was what role—if any—Clinton’s ongoing email controversy would play. Fortunately for the former Secretary of State, it didn’t play much of a role at all, and she can thank Sanders for that.
CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates about the controversy early on in the debate. After Clinton defended her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State and argued that she has been as transparent as possible throughout the ordeal, Sanders said exactly what Clinton wanted (and needed) to hear.
“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” Sanders said, which led to a standing ovation from the audience, along with a “thank you” and handshake from Clinton herself.
After Sanders shut down any possibility of the debate focusing on the email scandal, the candidates went back to discussing policy issues and didn’t mention the controversy again the rest of the night.
3) Martin O’Malley Has His Moments, But Fails to Stand Out
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was once considered a promising liberal alternative to Clinton. Once Sanders entered the race, however, it became clear that things would not be easy for the governor.
O’Malley’s campaign is in desperate need of national recognition, and a memorable moment in last night’s debate would have been helpful. Unfortunately for O’Malley, that moment never came. He was never really able to stand out from the pack during the debate, and was largely overshadowed by Clinton and Sanders.
One of the more interesting moments from O’Malley was when he attacked GOP frontrunner Donald Trump early in the debate, calling the Realestate mogul “that carnival barker in the Republican Party.”
He was also able to tout his extensive executive experience as mayor of Baltimore and two-term governor of Maryland. Overall, however, O’Malley wasn’t able to get the big break he needed.
4) The Night’s Biggest Loser: Lincoln Chafee
Early in the debate, it looked like Lincoln Chafee might surprise people. The former senator and governor of Rhode Island opened the debate with an indirect attack at Clinton, claiming that he has never been involved in controversies and has “high ethical standards.”
After that, however, it was all downhill for Chafee.
The former governor made multiple gaffes and stumbled on almost every question that was asked of him. He struggled to explain his voting record in Congress and looked unprepared compared to the other candidates. Chafee was polling at 0.3 percent prior to the debate, and it’s hard to picture that number going up anytime soon.
5) The Ultimate Wild Card: Joe Biden
There has been plenty of speculation in recent weeks as to whether or not Vice President Joe Biden will decide to run in the 2016 election.
Although he technically isn’t a candidate at this point, the vice president is polling in third place with 17.4 percent of the vote and would have qualified for the debate had he entered the race. It’s impossible to know how the debate would have been different with Biden on the stage, but given his experience and the fact that he faced Clinton in the 2008 primaries as well, it would have been interesting to see him face off with the other candidates.
Of course, he could still enter the race and change the entire landscape of the election. But given Clinton’s success in the debate and how late we are in the campaign, it’s hard to see Biden making a run at it at this point.
That being said, the Iowa Caucus is still four months away, and the race for the nomination could change significantly between now and then. With the first debate in the books, the campaign enters a new stage that could see candidates drop out of the race and, perhaps, Biden enter it.
The next Democratic debate will be in Iowa on Nov. 14.