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Nothing a better adversary than candidate will offer – and there were few points when Bernie Sanders, while clearly losing on certain topics, actually stood his ground – it was a night of contrasts, some visual, some verbal, some apparent.
It was especially true in what Sanders, and Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate who filled in for him, used to eviscerate Hillary Clinton: The former secretary of state supposedly lacked any actual policies, feigned interest in trade agreements and veterans’ benefits, and the use of government power to protect her family’s financial interests.
It was another night, however, when a candidate not named Donald Trump could show her weaknesses without carrying the burden of having to point out his own.
Even so, he reserved his harshest words for her position on health care, something she has been inconsistent on in the past: expanding Medicare to cover everyone, with an additional tax on the wealthy.
“Don’t talk about why it can’t be done,” he said. “Well it’s not because people don’t want it.”
Sanders wasn’t the only one to get personal. During the debate’s last panel, former President Bill Clinton reflected on the state of his marriage.
“It’s been in trouble lately,” he joked to Katy Tur, another of the moderators. “Too bad.”
Meanwhile, a soldier from Iraq who had shown his veteran ID card onstage before the debate stopped by Hillary Clinton’s podium and offered her a bite.
The debate, moderated by Tom Brokaw, was the first debate between Clinton and Sanders since she easily dispatched him on Sept. 26 in Iowa. For her part, Clinton avoided mentioning Sanders by name, preferring to take the opportunity to repeat remarks made about him in the last debate.
“We are in many ways,” she said, “already headed in the right direction.”
And she had to quickly end the buzz over her apparent wardrobe malfunction from the previous debate, when she turned her head away from moderator Lester Holt when he asked about her use of a private email server.
“I want to be on message here,” she said.
But while Sanders and Dean tossed more barbs at Clinton and in particular her husband, they also had a lot of fun at their expense.
“Bernie, what your hair is saying,” Dean said to Sanders, after leading with a joke that the Senate Finance Committee had asked Dean’s campaign to supply his hairstyles for a forthcoming documentary.
Finally, no debate is complete without some slam at Donald Trump, and the Vermont senator offered a particularly pointed commentary on the Republican nominee.
“The candidate for president of the United States calls Mexicans rapists and criminals,” he said. “Does that not show a pathological lack of respect for the Constitution?”
(To Trump, who had taken some flak for comparing the number of immigrants from Mexico to an assembly line at a manufacturing plant in Indiana, just hours earlier, during a rally in Ohio, the statement offered a running coda of jabs.
“What was Mr. Trump’s response?” Sanders continued. “Take a victory lap. Take a victory lap for taking office as president of the United States.”)