BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- When Bernie Sanders' announced his presidential campaign in a patchwork press conference outside the U.S. Capital on a sunny day a year ago, even the most starry-eyed supporter could not have conjured up the image of Thursday night's Democratic debate.
That voters in New York would play a consequential role in the primary one year later was unimaginable. That Sanders would still be in the running was wishful thinking with a dab of delusion.
And yet, there was the Vermont senator, sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton for what will likely be the last time -- a relatively hastily assembled forum at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where a vast expanse of old warehouses have been retrofitted into offices for a whiskey distillery, a glass block factory, a film and television production studio and a company that, among other things, makes sleek steel staircases for the homes of the rich. It's a microcosm of the post-industrial economy that has colored much of this campaign.
The night had all the elements of a movie: The native son, back home, making one last impassioned plea to fellow New Yorkers to propel him past the better known former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Had Aaron Sorkin penned the script, Clinton would have walked off the stage after Sanders' opening remarks, the futility of responding coming into full view with his soaring prose.
But campaigns are messy. They aren't broken into clean theatrical acts. And even the most heart-tugging debate moments are complicated by things like delegate counts, primary rules, election calendars and, yes, the fact that the "villain" in this particularly drama happens to be admired and supported by many others.
Sanders had himself a good night in Brooklyn in what was a cantankerous affair. He questioned Clinton's judgment on the Iraq War ("the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country"); called out an opaque answer she gave about support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour ("history has outpaced Secretary Clinton"); and took her and her husband to task for the use of the phrase "super predator" during their advocacy for the 1994 crime bill.
"It is a racist term and everybody knew it was a racist term," Sanders said, in one of the sharpest exchanges of the night.
He also stumbled a bit at times, failing to point to a specific decision Clinton made that was influenced by her donors (when one exists); and getting caught snickering at Clinton's attacks on him when the tone of the debate grew somber as the topic switched to gun violence.
"This is not a laughing matter. Ninety people on average a day are killed or commit suicide," Clinton quickly shot back.
But the scorecard for the night -- the jeering from the crowd, and the acid-tongued digs between the candidates -- didn't carry as much import as the surrounding context. Come Tuesday's vote in New York -- where the polls currently favor Clinton -- the math will remain Sanders' enemy and the nomination will remain elusive.
"I think we're going to win this nomination to tell you the truth," Sanders said toward the end of the debate, in what sounded more like an effort to convince the skeptics than a measure of confidence. "Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true. Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South, no question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That's the fact. But you know what, we're out of the Deep South now, and we're moving up."
Like the senator, Sanders' aides were sanguine about his chances -- as campaign flacks are paid to be. Even before the debate, his top strategist, Tad Devine, regaled reporters with his vision of how the nomination would be won.
It looked something like this: Sanders would compete through June -- that much was certain -- and when the last contest was done, neither he nor Clinton would have the necessary number of pledged delegates to clinch the nomination (2,383), The outcome would be left to the so-called superdelegates -- the party insiders that can vote for whoever they want at the convention -- at which point, Sanders would make the case that he was more electable and stronger in the states that the Democratic Party needed. Many of those 469 superdelegates committed to Clinton would be won over. Not in dribs and drabs, mind you, but in a wave -- what Devine called "Flip Day" -- thereby sealing the deal.
"The truth of the matter is neither candidate at the end of this process will have the pledged delegates necessary to win,"said Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver. "So we are going to go into a convention, an open convention, just like the Republicans. No one's going to have a majority.
"A couple of things will come into play," Weaver continued. "One of the big things is who can beat the Republicans in the fall. The polls have been consistent over a couple of months now. Bernie Sanders has been consistently much stronger against Republicans than Secretary Clinton, particularly if it is not [Donald] Trump."
It's not an entirely impossible theory. Another top Sanders' aide argued that the month of May could end up being a sweep for Sanders. Notably, the aide raised the prospect of "external factors" tripping up Clinton before the convention.
"Things happen in campaigns," he said, in a clear but unstated reference to probes into Clinton's email use.
But the Sanders campaign's rosy outlook sidesteps certain question marks.
For example, Clinton will likely be ahead in the pledged delegate count, even if she remains short of the number needed to clinch the nomination. Currently, she has won 1,289 pledged delegates, compared with Sanders' 1,038. And absent a tidal wave of support for Sanders, she's going to be leading in popular vote too. According to Real Clear Politics, Clinton has 9.3 million votes, to Sanders' 6.9 million. For Sanders to make the case at that point that superdelegates should switch to him would take a monumental sales pitch and an inspired bit of chutzpah -- a campaign whose supporters believe the primary hasn't been small-d democratic suddenly insisting that the person with the most votes doesn't deserve the nomination.
In a reflection of this difficulty, Sanders came into the debate sharp and biting -- a distant approach from the early debates, when his memorable moments were the attacks he chose to skip. He moved swiftly to highlight lapses in Clinton's ethics and judgment -- demanding that she release the transcripts of her speeches to financial firms; making the case that her ties to Wall Street pull her toward corporatism.
"Do we really feel confident about a candidate saying that she's going to bring change in America when she is so dependent on big money interests?" Sanders asked.
But Clinton was no passive participant. She gave as good as she got, sometimes with rhetorical flourishes that seemed more Victorian than outer borough.
"This is a phony attack that is designed to raise questions when there is no evidence or support, to undergird the insinuations that he is putting forward in these attacks," Clinton said.
By the second hour of the debate, as the topics turned to the efficacy of global climate treaties, the merits of NATO, and whether the U.S.-led intervention in Libya was merely shortsighted or strategically stupid (or both), the tempers and pace cooled. Surely enough, the conversation began to fall into the same squabbles that marked many of the debates prior.
Sanders aides took to the spin room to argue that the night had been a thorough, unambiguous win.
But there was no evident knockout blow. And for a candidate who needed a jolting evening, that probably won't do.
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