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Iowa Democrats: A roomful of critics for Democratic debate

Iowa Democrats: A roomful of critics for Democratic debate
Democratic presidential candidates include Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, left, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O'Malley. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Dozens of Democrats who gathered here to watch their party's first presidential debate reached a broad consensus Tuesday night:

  • Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley vastly out-performed his humble single-digit standing in the polls.

  • Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a strong, polished performance.

  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders demonstrated why his insurgent campaign is creeping up on her.

  • And neither former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee nor former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb belonged on the stage.

"I don't know why Webb or Chafee are running. Is it ego? Do they have a message?" asked retiree Rick Smith, 66, who lives in this Des Moines suburb. "I kind of resent them taking airtime from people I really want to hear from."

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Like most of the 50 attendees at a Democratic debate watch party in the state that holds the nation's first nominating contest, Smith has not decided whom he will caucus for in February.

As the group watched the two-hour face-off in Las Vegas hosted by CNN, they drank margaritas and nibbled on tortilla chips and queso at a Mexican restaurant.

Clinton, the former secretary of State, remains the front-runner, several voters said, noting her deft responses to criticism that included her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.

"Hillary was clearly very well prepared, I would give her kudos for that," said Bob Raker, 61, a retired county government worker who lives in nearby Beaverdale and is uncommitted. He was among several voters who said they were impressed by O'Malley, notably his closing statement about rebuilding the nation.

"I think Martin O'Malley did a very good job," said state Rep. John Forbes of Urbandale, who is also undecided. "He's very genuine, I think he comes across as a person really dedicated to making sure the country moves forward and taking care of the middle class."

Jennifer Erwin, a precinct captain for Sanders, said she left the debate with "a lot more respect for O'Malley."

"I wasn't familiar with his record" in Maryland, said Erwin, 32, who lives in Windsor Heights. "But Bernie's still my guy."

Sanders' defense of Clinton over her use of a private email server while secretary of State proved a critical moment in the debate. When moderator Anderson Cooper pressed her on the issue, Sanders stepped in.

"I think the secretary is right," he said, drawing cheers and applause in the debate hall. "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn email."

The Democrats at the debate-watching party also applauded and hooted in appreciation.

"That was the best line," said Christian Ucles, 33, of Des Moines. Ucles, a Latino activist, is a Clinton supporter, and he thinks she won the night.

But Ucles was concerned about what appeared to be her less than enthusiastic support about offering in-state college tuition to students in the country illegally.

Clinton said she "would support any state that takes that position and would ... encourage more states to do the same thing."

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More broadly, Ucles and other Democrats compared their party's debate with the two GOP presidential debates, which at times have been dominated by businessman Donald Trump attacking other candidates on their looks.

"This was a graduate class on policy, compared to the kindergarten stuff you get from Republicans," Ucles said, adding that he hoped Democrats would add more debates to the calendar. Five more are scheduled.

Republicans countered that the debate showed the Democrats had become socialists, like Sanders. (The independent senator from Vermont is a self-proclaimed socialist who caucuses with the Democrats.)

"Socialist Bernie Sanders didn't come to the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party came to him," said Iowa GOP spokesman Charlie Szold. "For more than two hours, the Democrats discussed new ways to spend other people's money, add to our $18-trillion national debt, and cede ever more power to bureaucrats in D.C."

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