Bernie clearly had the moment of the night with the "the American people are sick of hearing about your damn emails line." And Sanders supporters loved it. He used it to pivot to talking about The Media and The Issues.
But Hillary Clinton was nodding and smiling and thanking through all of it. And with good reason.
Clinton had done just fine on her own with her own answer, painting it as partisanship and getting applause. One part of the strongest overall performance of the night. Bernie's answer was more dramatic... and very final.
Bernie Sanders has taken email off the table for the Democratic primary season. The other candidates can't raise it now without diminishing themselves. The obsessed media will continue, of course, but now Clinton can easily deflect by saying "this is a partisan attack" (the answer she clearly always wanted to give) "and even my main opponent says we're sick of this."
Revealing: "When one of us is elected president" says @BernieSanders and not "when I AM president" #nbc2016 #DemDebate— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) October 14, 2015
And, with that Bernie just admitted he's running as an issue candidate not a candidate who wants to win the primary.— amy walter (@amyewalter) October 14, 2015
The Sanders camp's reaction to the idea that he was tonight's target: "well, he's driving the agenda."— Gabriel Debenedetti (@gdebenedetti) October 14, 2015
In any case, Sanders and Clinton were relatively evenly matched much of the night, each playing to strength: Sanders spontaneous, Clinton measured.
But Hillary seemed more ready. Sanders came off as if trying to cram the whole Bernie Speech, at arena volume, into one answer, and it took him a couple rounds to settle in.
And unfortunately for Sanders, the first major exchange was on guns, the one issue where Clinton could get to his left which she did solidly. Martin O'Malley helped with the assist - and reminded us of it near the end naming the NRA as the enemy he was most proud of - and Sanders was left arguing that he had to be for gun rights in a rural state. Bernie Sanders, making a Red State argument.
In the end, Sanders satisfied his supporters and Clinton hers, and Clinton gets a big strategic win. There was no obvious weakness, and email is now off limits, so the slim chance that Joe Biden gets in has faded even more.
Martin O'Malley was clearly the winner of the second tier. He tried to play the Reasonable Role and navigate the narrow straits between Hillary and Bernie. O'Malley offered solid answers, well within the mainstream of Democratic primary voters. But, and this may be a critique of the process, he didn't generate a breakout moment. His best moment, the firm "The. National. Rifle. Association." response to the enemies question, was too late and too context dependent.
And the most, um, memorable answer to that question came from Jim Webb bragging about That Charlie I Killed In Nam,and looking almost eager to go back and do it again. Up to that point, the most notable point about Webb was his role as the Timekeeping Nag. At one point Hillary reaised her hand as Webb was speaking, then realized the absurdity, laughed, and lowered it.
Lincoln Chafee got the least time, but more time would only have meant more damage. Before tonight he was an obscurity; now he's a laughing stock. His admission that, as a brand new appointed senator replacing his late father, he simply wasn't ready to cast an informed vote may have been the most honest answer of the night, but it's one of the most devastating gaffes in debate history.
Chafee had fumbled long before that; Hillary easily batted away his attack on the Iraq vote, he got time to repeat it, and when she was offered response time she simple said "No." (Almost as good as Joe Biden's identical response about his verbosity.) I'd like to have his nine or so minutes back and split it between Webb and O'Malley.
(And that's part of what was good about this debate: half as many candidates = twice as much time per.)
As for moderation, Anderson Cooper spent the first hour of the debate working variations of "Bernie, are you a Red red or just a pinko Com Symp?" and "Hillary, are you a crook or just a liar?" And Dana Bash tried to instigate a Hillary Clinton-Carly Fiorina cat fight, but Hillary wouldn't take the bait.