World·Analysis

Hillary and Bernie Show at Democratic debate opener

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders dominated last night's Democratic presidential debate. And when it came to Clinton's email controversy, Sanders gave her a surprising boost.

Hilliary Clinton, Bernie Sanders dominate last night in Las Vegas

Bernie Sanders seen as a serious threat to Hillary Clinton's front-runner status 3:11

Americans are sick and tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton's "damn emails," Bernie Sanders said in one of last night's key debate moments, a surprising comment that prompted Clinton to turn to her rival, beaming, and shake his hand.

"Thank you Bernie," she told him with a big smile and a chuckle.

The exchange between the two front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination was just one in the two-hour debate that was dominated by Clinton and Sanders. There were three other candidates on stage — Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb — who were also trying to sell themselves to voters, but could not steal the spotlight. 

"It's clearly the Hillary and Bernie show," Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist who was in Las Vegas, told CBC News as the debate neared its end.

Webb felt so left out he complained repeatedly to CNN moderator Anderson Cooper that he wasn't getting enough time to talk. O'Malley, former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, had the best chance of making a dent in the race, but didn't quite get there, Rosen said.

Clinton barely seemed to notice that she's running against O'Malley, Webb and Chafee. She focused on Sanders, setting herself apart from him when it came to views on capitalism and Wall Street regulations, foreign policy on Syria and Russia, and most notably on gun control.

Sanders not tough enough on guns

"No, not at all," Clinton said with no hesitation when asked if Sanders was tough enough on gun control.

Gun control is considered a vulnerability for Sanders, a senator from Vermont who partly defended his voting record on the issue last night by saying he represents a rural state where guns are viewed differently than in urban centres.

He was challenged to explain why he voted against the Brady bill (which mandated background checks and a waiting period for gun purchasers), why he opposed gun manufacturers being held responsible for shootings, and why he was in favour of Amtrak train passengers being allowed to pack guns in their bags.

Participating in the debate were, from left to right, Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee. Webb, O'Malley and Chafee struggled to raise their profiles on Tuesday. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

Sanders boasted last night that he has a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association and said he is in favour of an expanded background check system, closing loopholes and doing more on mental health care to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.

Joe Trippi, another Democratic strategist, told CBC News that Sanders could have handled the gun control issue better and that overall, he didn't do what he needed to in the debate.

The senator's core of support is mostly coming from white, liberal voters and he needs to broaden his appeal, said Trippi, who was in Vegas. The debate was a chance to do that, Trippi said, but instead Sanders doubled-down on his "fiery lefty" positions and he likely didn't do enough to draw more people into his camp.

"Sometimes you can't teach an old dog new tricks," said Trippi.

Sanders appeared energetic throughout the night, calling for a "political revolution" and advocating his priorities which include cracking down on Wall Street and the billionaires who are corrupting democracy, in his opinion. He called climate change the biggest national security threat facing the United States and vowed to raise the minimum wage and give paid leave to new mothers, all positions that make him popular with Democrats on the left.

Clinton stays on course

When Sanders agreed with Clinton that issues, not her emails, should be the focus for voters, Sanders acknowledge that the move "may not be great politics," but said he supported her anyway. He told a reporter after the debate that it was the right thing to do.

Rosen said Sanders did Clinton "a big favour," but it could also work to his advantage.

"I think that it's going to mean a lot to Democrats to have heard Sanders say that," said Rosen, adding that it showed something about his character. "The fact that he was a gentleman and didn't take advantage of it says a lot."

Trippi agreed Clinton and Sanders both came out ahead because of that exchange. "It did him a lot of good, it did her a lot of good," he said.

Clinton, the former secretary of state, needed a good performance Tuesday night. She has been looking to keep ahead of Sanders in the polls and, ideally, keep Vice-President Joe Biden out of the race. He's been mulling over whether to join and some say he won't if Clinton is performing well.

Clinton, an experienced debater, appeared confident, in control, and ready for the questions that Cooper put to her throughout the evening, including the very first one when he asked about her flip-flopping on policy positions such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

While Clinton and Sanders did have some sparring moments, she focused on running against Republicans than against the men surrounding her.

When the candidates were asked what enemy they were most proud of making during their careers, Clinton answered drug companies, the Iranians, and, Republicans. Some of her most passionate answers came when she was denouncing them, not her opponents on stage.

Viewers may have watched the "Hillary and Bernie show" but Clinton perhaps has already changed the channel and is looking ahead. There are still five more debates and the primaries for Clinton to win and that path to victory could easily hit a bump if Biden does decide to jump in the race, so the show ain't over. 

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