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Polite and respectful: Democrats' refreshing take on the presidential debate

Polite and respectful: Democrats' refreshing take on the presidential debate
Bernie Sanders supporters watch the Democractic presidential candidates debate at the home of Lyn Pestana. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

If the first two Republican debates were structured to maximize the rancorous "The Real Candidates of the GOP" potential, Tuesday night's Democratic presidential primary debate on CNN had a gentler, more "Parks and Recreation" vibe.

Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly referenced her many "plans" (including that five-pointer, beloved by debate club geeks everywhere) in a way that would have made Pawnee's Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) proud.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Democratic debate review: In the Oct. 14 Section A, a television review of the Democratic presidential primary debate identified the character Leslie Knope on NBC's comedy "Parks and Recreation" as mayor of Pawnee. The highest elected city office the character held was that of City Council member.
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The stage at the Wynn Las Vegas felt refreshingly and often hilariously familial, one of those crazy Sunday dinners at which tempers flare, socialist democracies like Denmark are invoked as model countries, all the guests know what the Glass-Steagall Act is and the guy at the end of the table constantly complains that it's never his turn to talk. But still there is laughter, agreement and a basic respect.

Indeed, the high point of the night occurred when, as Clinton was answering, yet again, questions about her emails, her main opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, stepped in to say "enough, enough with the emails … let's talk about real issues." Thunderous applause all around, and though Clinton missed her opportunity to give Sanders a hug (photo op!) she did thank him most sincerely. For a moment you could see the tension drain from her shoulders.

Moderator Anderson Cooper, in his dark-rimmed serious glasses, tried to squash the moment by passing the ball to former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Having pitched himself as presidential material because he has never been involved in a scandal, Chafee dutifully spoke of restoring credibility. But Sanders had effectively deleted the emails as an issue. When Clinton was asked whether she cared to respond to Chafee, her simple "no" instantly became the response to beat.

Sanders, meanwhile, made it clear that he has had enough with a lot of things, including and especially the tyranny of the Wall Street casino game and our collective refusal to address global warning. With his signature hair and wild gesticulations, he served as the old radical, reminding his party in general, and Clinton in particular, that there is no shame in being called a liberal — and liberal can mean well to the left of center.

He and Clinton ruled the night. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley held his own, and pointed out the difference in tone between the Democratic debate and the Republicans, while on either end of the stage, Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb slowly lost all relevance. Chafee seemed adrift in his own suit while Webb, continually huffing and puffing about not getting enough time to talk, spent more time arguing with Cooper than his fellow candidates.

Cooper did his best to bring the heat, and the ratings, that the Republicans generated. Cooper opened as an antagonist, apparently hoping to avoid the hit Jake Tapper took for not calling certain Republican candidates on their inaccuracies.

Cooper asked Clinton if she was a progressive, a moderate or a person who would say anything to get elected; her answer: She's "a progressive who gets things done." He asked Sanders if he honestly thought Americans would vote for a democratic socialist. Yes, the senator replied, if they understood what democratic socialism really was. And he asked Chafee how he could run as a Democrat when he just became a Democrat two years ago; there was no longer any room for a moderate Republican in the party was the response.

Frequently referring to notes, Cooper took a page out of Tapper's by frequently reminding the candidates what they had said in the past, including criticisms of one another. This was a huge boon to Clinton; since most of the criticism was aimed at her and the rules of the debate required she get a chance to respond. She did get the lion's share of the speaking time (causing Webb to moan a bit that no one was criticizing him so he didn't get to talk which, while true, was not at all presidential.)

Obviously, with five to the Republicans' 11 and no presence as disruptive or distracting as Donald Trump, the Democratic debates were always going to be a more manageable affair, offering the candidates an ability to discuss issues, and their positions in much greater depth.

At certain points, the conversation entered fatal stages of wonkiness — voting records were endlessly compared, and when Cooper felt obligated to explain the Glass-Steagall Act it was difficult to believe that just a few weeks ago we were listening to Trump and Jeb Bush engage in a "did too/did not" spat over Texas casinos.

Certainly there was passion — the issue of gun control both united (every Democratic candidate is for better background checks) and divided the group (O'Malley scored big with successful legislation in Maryland) — but at no point did the discourse become overly personal.

Presidential politics without vitriol — that alone made it worth watching.

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