The final Democratic debate before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary was two hours of trench warfare between skilled rivals who now know their opponent’s weaknesses as well as they know their own strengths. Both made strong attacks, and both defended effectively. This was the most intense debate of the entire cycle, possibly foreshadowing an epic, long-running series of face-to-face contests alternating with primaries and caucuses well into the spring.
Delivered her realistic-change-agent message, sometimes with a pert smile, other times with an effective scowl. Tried to outfox and intimidate Sanders as in earlier debates, but found a more energized, fluid opponent who has honed his skills. Went for a moment of high indignity over Sanders’ attacks on her financial ties to the establishment, only to see him laugh it off and deliver a cutting response. Was nicked on her Goldman Sachs speeches and support for trade deals. Still striving to claim her version of the progressive mantle, while reconciling the inconsistency of accusing Sanders of being too liberal. Articulate, energetic, serious, on-message, and largely error-free, but was facing a man on a mission.
Intense and full throated, calling for a revolution. Continuing to strengthen as a debater: increasingly self-assured, even one-on-one against pro Clinton, and more adept at flaunting his smarts. On friendly terrain for much of the debate, discussing campaign finance reform and special-interest influence. Showed extraordinarily good judgment and instincts about when to pick fights and when to agree with his rival. Less comfortable on foreign policy, but, at last, managed to mostly hold his own. Typically grim and gruff, but offered a few flashes of rollicking humor. Catnip galore for his current fervent supporters and likely gained some converts, but the map beyond New Hampshire awaits, likely unchanged by this debate.
Note: Grades reflect many aspects of the candidates’ performance, including style, substance, and crowd reaction, and whether a candidate seemed to improve or hurt his or her overall standing based on the debate.