Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez and Don Lemon
The first Democratic presidential primary debate took place on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Wynn Hotel & Casino. Hosted by CNN and Facebook, it was moderated by Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, and Juan Carlos Lopez. It was a smaller, tamer contest than those held previously by the Republicans, who had already staged their first and second debates, consisting of 10 and 11 GOP hopefuls, respectively. By contrast, the Democratic clash featured only 5 combatants: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Governor of Maryland Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, and former Governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee.
To be sure, O'Malley, Webb, and Chafee (and their supporters) were happy to have the exposure and the opportunity to reach voters afforded by this event. But going in, the juggernauts from which everyone wanted to hear were Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders. No wonder – the former had been suffering terribly in polls for months leading up to the debate, battered by scandal as her alleged use of private e-mail servers for the handling of sensitive state secrets had proven an issue that refused to die, while the latter had been making tremendous gains. Clinton, who had once dominated all Democratic contenders with little mercy, had been shown in recent polls to be nearly neck-and-neck with Sanders in Iowa, and actually trailing him slightly in New Hampshire – both important early-voting primary states. Nevertheless, national polling still had her enjoying a roughly 20-point lead over her rival. It's the momentum she and her backers feared; Clinton could not afford to keep hemorrhaging support to Sanders.
Before the curtains were ever raised, this debate was poised to be a less vitriolic affair than the bitter mudslinging and angry arguments that had characterized Republican contests, with Sanders – easily the only Democrat with a shot at challenging Hillary, according to polls – saying beforehand that he had sworn off any personal attacks against Clinton. The two did spar on a handful of issues, particularly when Sanders reiterated that he is not a capitalist (he labels himself a “Democratic Socialist”) and when Clinton criticized his voting record on gun control as insufficiently strong, but for the most part both contenders kept to the spirit of civility.
At times they even ceased to be adversarial, most notably when Clinton was inevitably questioned by Anderson Cooper (a stern, unforgiving moderator to everyone tonight) about her e-mail scandal. Once Clinton had issued her defense, that she had made and was making her best effort to be transparent and cooperative towards the investigation and that she would continue to answer all questions put to her about it, but that she wanted to use this debate to discuss important political issues, Sanders surprised many by interjecting to agree with her. He supported Clinton's retort to Cooper's question, and then, fully supporting his rival and backing her up, declared to the moderators and the audience that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!”, to roaring applause.
But Clinton wasn't finished getting a boost for the night. Lincoln Chafee made an attempt to pursue her on the matter, arguing that the e-mail scandal spoke to her integrity and was a valid issue to be considered in her presidential candidacy. Moderator Cooper immediately asked Clinton whether she had any response for the former governor. Smiling, Clinton succinctly answered “No.” The audience thundered its support.
The evening went on to sharpen, as many hoped it would, just what policy difference did exist between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Aside from their disagreement on capitalism (Sanders vilifies the economic doctrine for leading to the concentration of 90% of the nation's wealth into the hands of 1/10th of 1% of its people, while Clinton celebrates it for the spirit of entrepreneurship it promotes), they do not see eye to eye on the Syrian crisis. Clinton supports an enforced “no-fly zone” in the nation to prevent further harm to innocent civilians, while Sanders worries about the expense of such a tactic and the potential for military clashes with the Russian air force. There was also disagreement on gun control, as previously discussed, and regarding Clinton's support at the time for President George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, among other issues.
Everyone had a chance to speak, but as expected, there was some marginalization of the three minor candidates. Among them, Jim Webb was the least willing to tolerate this, as he explicitly protested on several occasions that he was being ignored or made to wait absurd intervals to furnish a response. At one time, he even expressed his hope to the moderators that he would receive greater speaking opportunities as the night wore on, and complained “this hasn't been equal time”. Matching him blow for blow, no-nonsense Anderson Cooper habitually responded to Webb's objections by reminding the Senator that he had agreed to the rules of the debate.
Other issues discussed included Russia's military activities as a whole (during which Bernie Sanders seemed to have a moment of absentmindedness, muttering “Well...I think...Mr Putin is going to regret what he is doing”, causing the audience to chuckle), the Black Lives Matter movement, and the government's bailout of banks deemed “too big to fail”. The evening wound down with a question wondering which enemy each candidate had made of which he or she was most proud. Jim Webb gave the honor to the enemy soldier who had wounded him with a grenade during the Vietnam War, then recalled with a grin that that individual was no longer around. Hillary Clinton named “the Republicans”, again earning impressive applause. 90-second “final thoughts” from everyone concluded the debate.
All in all, it was a strong evening for Clinton, with Bernie Sander's steadfast adherence to a civilized and even friendly debating strategy possibly winning him some points. With abysmal poll showings compared to these two, the future of the remaining debaters after this contest was far from clear.