Democratic town hall takeaways: Little new ground broken with unusual format

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall in Des Moines on Monday.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall in Des Moines on Monday.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The three Democratic presidential candidates did not quite debate on Monday night. Instead, in one of the last chances for voters to see them before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, they took separate questions from the audience of Democrats who plan to caucus. What we noticed:

Candidates stick to their scripts

The format allowed the candidates to hold mostly to their stump speeches when answering questions, with their opponents off stage, no pushback from the questioners and only a few follow-ups from moderator Chris Cuomo. Voters who have not yet heard them may have appreciated the chance to see a less-filtered exchange of ideas. But it also meant the candidates made their assertions mostly without being challenged, and it was far harder to tread new ground or alter the trajectory of the race.

Bernie Sanders gets warm and fuzzy

Sure, there was plenty of talk about the 1% and the oligarchs. But the format, and perhaps the knowledge that he’s starting to become a serious candidate, pushed Sanders to get a little more personal than usual.

He talked about his elementary school championship basketball team (somebody write a fact check!), his rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the shock his mother and his father, a Polish immigrant, would have felt at seeing him become a senator and now running for president. He told jokes. He smiled. This is the kind of frivolity that Sanders usually resists, but may be a sign that he now sees himself as a lot more than a protest candidate and wants to show voters he’s worthy of sharing a beer with.

OK, OK, enough already. Back to the old Sanders: “We need a political revolution.”

The attacks continue

Sanders often insists he likes Hillary Clinton and wants to keep the race all about substance. Then he goes for the knife.

On Monday, he criticized her for coming late to liberals' widely-held opposition to the Keystone pipeline, and in her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. “Why did it take Hillary Clinton such a long time?” Sanders said.

He mentioned his own stance against Wall Street deregulation that Bill Clinton happened to have signed. And he also brought up the issue that may have cost Clinton the 2008 election.

“The truth is that the most significant vote and issue regarding foreign policy that we have seen in this country in modern history is the vote on the war on Iraq,” he said. “Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq.”

Hillary Clinton is running for a third Obama term 

She used President Obama's kind words about her earlier Monday to talk about how she and Obama, former rivals, had become great friends and said she only puts up with getting “pummeled and pushed and criticized” because it is so crucial to “build on the progress we’ve made under President Obama.”

Her Iraq vote was a mistake, but Obama picking her as secretary of State was proof “he trusted my judgment,” she said, in hopes of winning absolution.

You won’t hear any of this talk during the GOP debates, but Obama remains popular among Democratic primary voters. And Clinton is long past assuming that she will breeze into the general election.

'You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.'

Clinton twice invoked the oft-repeated aphorism by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. She wasn’t just kissing up to his son Chris, the moderator on stage with her. The axiom has long been her essence and the primary argument she used against both Obama in 2008 and this year against Sanders.

“You have to have somebody who is a proven, proven fighter, someone who has taken them on and won,” she said when talking about healthcare, where she has criticized Sanders’ push for socialized medicine as misguided.

“Not talk, action,” she added later when talking about her husband’s presidency.

It didn't work in 2008. But Sanders is not Obama.

Martin O’Malley is a desperate man

His face went flush when Cuomo asked who his supporters should shift to when he falls short of the set threshold for remaining a viable candidate in the caucuses. Don’t give up, he begged them.

Twice, he dismissed “the polls back East” in trying to rally Iowans, perhaps hoping they don’t remember that he was governor of Maryland, which is, you know, back East.

Most of his statements sounded like last-ditch pleas. Which they were. “My candidacy is in your hands,” he said. “Do with it as you will.”

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