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Eye On Candidates
November 16, 2015

Did O’Malley Gain the Most in Debate?

The three remaining Democratic presidential candidates participated in their second debate of the nominating process this weekend, and the consensus seems to be that all did well, with most concluding that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley probably did the best, though probably not enough to make much of a difference. Here is the assessment of Glenn Thrush at Politico:

Five takeaways from the Democratic debate

When Clinton worked the rope line at her post-debate party, a supporter shouted “Give ’em hell, Hill!” according to CNN’s Dan Merica — but it was really the poll-challenged O’Malley who wielded the pitchfork. Languishing at 5 percent in the polls, O’Malley has often found himself crushed between Clinton’s mainstream support and Sanders’ hoarse populism, too marginal to attract her support, too polished to garner his. But the former Maryland governor has found his voice, besting both of his rivals during an energetic speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner a couple of weeks ago, and he was a confident and confrontational presence on the stage in Des Moines on Saturday — thwacking Sanders on gun rights and Clinton on banks.

Thrush wasn’t the only one impressed with O’Malley’s performance. Over at Bloomberg Politics Mark Halperin gave him the highest grade of the evening, a B+ (Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders both received B’s):

His best night of the campaign to date. Solid, confident, and often lyrical—although only occasionally hit the bullseye that has thus far eluded him: What is he selling that Clinton and Sanders don’t have to offer? Frequently emotional and engaging on domestic policy, especially when effectively pushing his Maryland governing record and hitting Clinton hard on gun control. Too often grim on national security, but spoke movingly about an Iowa military family. One big caution: Folded when Clinton nailed him with some opposition research on a gubernatorial appointment. Has a long, long way to get in the game, but this performance will rally his supporters and allow him to enter the next phase of the campaign with the potential to be more than a sidebar player.

While O’Malley was the “winner” (maybe), the focus of most coverage remained on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A sampling of Thrush’s observations in Politico:

 Unlike Clinton’s nearly flawless first debate a month ago, Saturday night’s skirmish exposed familiar weaknesses — a tendency to bog down in stultifying technocratese when she’s playing it safe, coupled with a penchant for spouting factually funky weirdnesses using the very same voice of authority she uses when she’s making perfect sense….

1. Wall Street is Hillary Clinton’s golden albatross. When not bogged down in the email saga, Clinton and her staff spent much of the summer trying to head off trouble from the Elizabeth Warren, anti-Wall Street, wing of the Democratic Party by producing a comprehensive financial-services regulation proposal. It didn’t quite work….

“Not good enough,” Sanders said in his most direct attack on Clinton yet. “Why do — why, over her political career, has Wall Street been a major — the major — campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

2. Hillary said something really cray-cray.

…Even though Bill Clinton had close ties to Wall Street (his Treasury secretary, Rubin, would go on to become head of Citigroup) and financial-sector donors ponied up plenty of cash for her 2000 New York Senate run, she claimed that the main reason bankers have flocked to her cause is — wait for it — because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. “So I — I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” she said, as the moderators from CBS gaped, gob-smacked. “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”

Needless to say, the remark — delivered in her emphatic shout-voice — raised eyebrows 24 hours after the terror attacks in Paris killed more than 120 people. And it’s not likely to go away. A cascade of obligatory, outraged piling-on ensued: “@HillaryClinton, you reached a new low tonight by using 9/11 to defend your campaign donations,” tweeted RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

The third candidate on stage, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, seems to be drawing mixed reactions for his performance. The Wall Street Journal highlighted this uncertainty with one article suggesting audiences came away feeling Sanders did the best, and another analysis piece saying he failed to do what he needed to take on Clinton.

First the good news for Sanders:

Democrats who watched the party’s presidential candidates debate on Saturday night thought that Sen. Bernie Sanders won the event, an Internet survey found, though they also said Hillary Clinton showed that she would do the best job of keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism.

Mr. Sanders was declared the winner by 44% of Democratic primary voters who watched the nationally televised debate, with 32% choosing Mrs. Clinton and 2% picking the third candidate onstage, Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor….

Democratic primary voters who answered the questions said that, based on the debate, Mr. Sanders was the candidate who could best handle the job of president and was best suited to improving the economy.

A substantial 58% judged Mr. Sanders as the candidate “who best understands the problems facing people like you,’’ compared with 27% who chose Mrs. Clinton and 4% who named Mr. O’Malley.

Followed by this in a different article:

Sen. Bernie Sanders had one clear mission in the presidential debate Saturday night: Put front-runner Hillary Clinton on the defensive in hopes of peeling away Democratic voters who are coalescing behind her candidacy.

That didn’t happen….

Mr. Sanders needed a strong debate performance to blunt Mrs. Clinton’s momentum. Having entered the race in May as a long-shot candidate, he drew large crowds and an enthusiastic following in states that hold early contests. Over the past month, however, he has slipped in the polls, with Mrs. Clinton solidifying her front-runner status in part by holding her ground in a marathon appearance before a Republican-controlled House committee investigating terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya….

Mr. Sanders has seemed equivocal in challenging Mrs. Clinton. At times he complains the news media is trying to bait him into attacking his rival. In other moments, he makes clear he has profound differences with the former first lady and senator from New York.

It will likely be several days before the full impact of the debate can be assessed, possibly longer. But the post-debate commentary seems to indicate all three candidates performed reasonably well, and all three came out with their weaknesses as candidates fully on display:

  • Clinton didn’t stumble as frontrunner but did offer the sort of tone-deaf statements that are likely to haunt her;
  • Sanders demonstrated that he’s connecting with the Democratic base on substance but his erratic style and inability to take Clinton on directly and effectively continue to hinder him;
  • O’Malley showed he belonged on stage with the other two in what may be the first “good” moment for his campaign, while continuing to underwhelm and unable to inspire more to follow him.

Given that O’Malley has been largely a non-factor to date, his positive exposure in this debate likely means that while he’s not going to rocket into contention on the basis of this performance alone, he did the most to help himself of any of the candidates on stage.