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The Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a town-hall style forum at Drake University on Monday, one week exactly before the race’s first caucus in Iowa. Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton had a little over a half-hour each to interact with voters and field questions in what might have been one of the most substantive discussions this election cycle has seen — here’s how each candidate fared.
This was the time for Sanders to shine. The town hall format suited him better than any other candidate, and we got to see the more personal side of the Vermont senator. However, while he was consistently on message, he failed to do what was needed to give undecided voters a more complete picture of his positions.
His start was strong, beginning with an easy-to-understand, yet comprehensive explanation on Democratic Socialism. As always, Sanders was strong on economics and income inequality, which has essentially been his bread and butter since the start of his campaign. When pressed by moderator Chris Cuomo on whether Sanders was advocating for more big government and raising taxes in his plan, the senator deftly sidestepped, going back to focusing on the billionaire class and their influence on government.
While there were some softer questions asked of Sanders, he was given a couple of more pointed inquiries about how his past comments on Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Coalition were a part of the “political establishment,” which he has railed against for months. On that point, the 74-year-old Brooklyn native mentioned his 100-percent voting record on pro-Planned Parenthood stances and his ongoing support for both causes.
The remaining questions were a mix of different topics, ranging from foreign policy to gun control and health care. Once again, Sanders dropped back to his major talking points on issues that he has typically struggled with. For foreign policy, Sanders reiterated that he voted against the war in Iraq from the beginning, criticizing Clinton in the process. To a small degree, he seemed to flip the gun control question back to Clinton.
But staying on message is what Sanders has been good at throughout his campaign, and why his followers are so committed to his pursuit of the presidency. Income inequality is his strong suit, and it’s an issue that resonates with young voters today. It’ll help in Iowa, but the time for Sanders to become a more well-rounded candidate is coming fast. His poll numbers are rising there, and tonight’s town hall further pushed him into a legitimate conversation for Democratic contender.
It was a solid showing tonight from Sanders, but eventually he’ll need to stop falling back on his main platform point if he wants to contend on the next level.
Coming into the town hall, the former Maryland governor was something of a political afterthought, polling at two percent nationwide and barely getting any screen time against Sanders and Clinton in the media. Tonight was his chance to distinguish himself and have some talking time in front of CNN’s cable network audience.
He took that chance and ran with it. From the outset, O’Malley stood up, rolled up his sleeves and fielded some of the most difficult questions the town hall offered. Some of the biggest ovations of the night came during his time, especially those regarding the Democrats speaking truth to the “ugliness” in the GOP’s race.
There were a more diverse array of questions during his second segment, including topics like structural racism, veterans affairs and LGQBT issues. O’Malley managed to get through the first one, being sure to further correct his earlier “All lives matter” gaffe from a few months ago by stating again that “Black lives matter,” and mentioning the lowered incarceration and murder rates in Maryland during his time as governor.
On the latter two questions, the former Governor shined. He mentioned his desire for full employment for veterans, while discussing how equality was necessary for all people and mentioning that Maryland was one of the most progressive states on LGQBT equality (it was the first state along with Maine to pass marriage equality by popular ballot and also passed a transgender anti-discrimination bill under O’Malley).
Unfortunately for O’Malley, he finds himself as the ideologically middle child in a race between giants. Sanders and Clinton have dominated the coverage, the polls and the overall conversation. But that’s not to say he didn’t have a strong night. He was present, sincere, personable and touched on a more diverse array of issues than Sanders. Some highlights included his pivot to climate change, in which he put forth a goal to have 100-percent clean energy by 2050, and his evocation of the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of America instead of a “barbed-wire fence,” a reference to remarks by GOP candidate Donald Trump.
In another cycle, O’Malley might stand a chance. But even the strongest performance of the night won’t be able to save him. Look for him to be a possible VP pick for Clinton if she gets the nomination.
Former Secretary of State Clinton was the final candidate of the night, and was extraordinarily polished. While there were some softballs (including a question about her biggest presidential influence, near the end), she was put on the spot early. In fact, her first question was about her supposed dishonesty, a question that she struggled with at first but eventually capitalized on. From that point on, it was all about advocating why she was the candidate most primed to be the president.
Foreign policy, an obvious strength for Clinton, was discussed at length, ranging from Benghazi, to her Iraq war vote, to stories from her time as secretary of state. Like O’Malley, she played up the civility of the candidates’ respective campaigns, while chiding the GOP for the divisive rhetoric that has been a hallmark of that race. Her tangents from her time as secretary were particularly strong. Whether it was defending the Iran nuclear deal to her stories about maintaining peace with Israel, Clinton came across as knowledgeable and diplomatic.
Her voting record will continue to be the subject of considerable debate, especially her past on LGQBT issues as well as her stance on the war in Iraq. In this town hall format, Clinton brought more energy and tried to appear more relaxed and relatable. The desire to continue the work of President Obama will be her strongest platform going forward and there should be no drop-off from her strong polling numbers in Iowa.
Clinton again showed why she is most ready to be commander-in-chief, but her desire to be in lockstep with the so-called political establishment could get her into some trouble if Sanders continues to gain momentum.