For more than two hours, the candidates tried to make their best impressions before a national audience discovering many of them for the first time.
Here’s how they did:
Winner — Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton proved without a doubt Tuesday night why she is the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner.
Clinton remained unflappable throughout the debate, showcasing her political experience and her command of the issues — all the while deftly handling criticism of her flip-flops and displaying a humor that put a more human face to her oft-critcized candidacy.
From the outset, Clinton was pressed to defend her changing stances on various issues — from the Pacific Rim trade deal to same-sex marriage — and came out from the tough questioning with a strong one-liner that very much fits the frame of her campaign: “I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
David Axelrod, CNN senior political commentator and the chief strategist for the Obama campaign that trounced Clinton in 2008, said she did “very well” and that her campaign was likely “thrilled with the performance.”
“She was poised she was passionate and she was in command,” Axelrod said. “If I were her campaign I would be thrilled with what she did tonight.”
And Clinton showed her mettle when she came under attack from three of her opponents on the stage over her vote in favor of the Iraq War, dismissing the idea that her judgment should be questioned over that vote by tying in President Barack Obama’s decision to tap her as secretary of state. And to top it off, she used the question to play up her foreign policy chops.
“I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues,” Clinton said.
In what came as a surprise to some pundits, Clinton also did not shy away from taking on her chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Clinton tested Sanders over his shifting stance on gun control in a way that he failed to do on her policy flips — Sanders even appeared flustered.
When asked whether Sanders is “tough enough on guns,” Clinton didn’t do any tip-toeing.
“No, not at all,” she said, before pointing out that Sanders has five times voted against the Brady Bill, which aimed to curtail gun violence.
Clinton didn’t just take on her runner-up, she also made a point of going after Republicans — making the case yet again that she’s the best prepared to take on the GOP in the general election.
Bernie Sanders didn’t shock anyone: he played to his base and thrived off the momentum that his insurgent campaign has enjoyed.
But his attempts at expanding his base of support — by including criminal justice reform in his opening statement and unequivocally stating “Black lives matter” later on — checked boxes but likely didn’t inspire voters in the African-American community.
And he didn’t do anything to convince voters he can overcome the electability hurdles a self-declared “democratic socialist” is sure to face in the general election.
“He spoke to his supporters. He spoke to the base of the Democratic Party. I’m not sure he showed why he’s electable,” CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger said.
But one thing Sanders did show was his passion for addressing the core issues of his campaign: income inequality and reckless behavior and excesses on Wall Street. And for voters still getting introduced to Sanders, that’s likely appealing.
Sanders displayed the same impassioned, off-the-cuff speaking style that has galvanized hundreds of thousands of Americans to join what Sanders hopes will become a veritable “political revolution.”
But the Vermont senator faced his toughest moment as he addressed his record on gun laws. It’s the one issue where Clinton has consistently been to Sanders’ left and he seemed ill-equipped to cope with her frontal attack.
Clinton’s win was Joe Biden’s loss.
The vice president is still mulling whether to jump into the presidential contest, but Clinton’s dominant showing Tuesday night makes the case for a Biden candidacy that much more difficult.
Clinton’s performance at the first primary debate is sure to soothe many anxious Democratic donors and supporters who have been wringing their hands over the start-and-stop pace of the opening months of Clinton’s 2016 campaign — notably the wobbly response to the controversies that have rocked its debut.
Biden could have joined the first debate and the result might have been different. But he didn’t. And now Biden has to grapple with the reality of the outcome.
Martin O’Malley needed a breakout moment and he came up empty.
At face value, O’Malley didn’t have a bad night. He cogently and concisely laid out his talking points and even took on both Clinton and Sanders at different points during the debate. He hit all the right notes on several of his responses and touted his results-driven record.
And if he wasn’t mired at just 1% in the polls, that might have been enough.
But O’Malley left the debate stage Tuesday night without a standout moment or zinger that people will be talking about Wednesday.
O’Malley’s strongest moment came when he challenged Sanders on gun control and made an fervent call for stricter gun laws — showing that he was prepared to fight to wrestle the mantle of the progressive wing away from Sanders, whose candidacy has wrecked O’Malley’s plans to present himself as the progressive alternative to a more moderate Clinton.
It started off as a rough night for former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb whose first impression to the overwhelming majority of Americans came as he stumbled in his opening statement as he listed the names of his five daughters.
And as the debate wore on, Webb seemed more pressed squabbling with debate moderator Anderson Cooper over the amount of time allotted to the different candidates than in making an impression that would win over voters.
At one point, when asked about giving undocumented immigrants access to Obamacare benefits, Webb appeared to formulate his position on the spot after pausing for a few seconds.
The former senator, governor and mayor simply didn’t make a lasting impression.
He tried to stake out the moral high ground from the get-go — pointing to his “high ethical standards” and the fact that he’s never had any “scandals.”
But he failed to turn his thinly veiled jab at Clinton and her email woes into any kind of more direct contrast or confrontation.
The Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat proclaimed that he is a “block of granite when it comes to the issues,” but when pressed over his vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, Chafee gave a head-scratching response: “I had just arrived in the Senate. “