With the growing tensions on the campaign trail hitting a near boiling point between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, everyone who follows politics closely saw this collision course on the horizon. Right from its inception, last night's CNN Democratic debate lived up to it's heightened expectations as the most contentious, bruising political fight of the Democratic primary nomination battle to date.
It embodied the rough-and-tumble, raw, and bare-knuckle punching slugfest brand of politics that New Yorkers are not only used to, but yearn for come election season.
Going into the debate, both candidates had a lot on the line.
For Clinton, she needed to not only accomplish what any frontrunner attempts to do at a debate-- do no harm to her own campaign-- but she also needed to find a way to cool off the 'berning' momentum swirling around her rival following his wins in eight of the last nine contests.
Sanders, on the other hand, had a much more difficult task. Down by double-digits against Clinton in the state, his challenge was to position himself to do the near impossible-- find a way to do what he says he'll inspire nationally by creating a 'political revolution,' but instead use the debate to create one in the Empire State.
As they have in past debate performances, overall, both candidates did relatively well and accomplished some of what they sought to achieve going into the debate. Clinton walked away mostly unscathed but fell short of delivering a body-blow that could bury Sanders' campaign six feet underground. Sanders threw some tough punches, but didn't do much to spark a political revolution in New York.
It's too early to tell what, if any, lasting impact the debate had on the shape of the race in New York, but nonetheless, there were several key take-aways.
Lets dive into Sanders showing first. Understanding that he's made enormous gains recently, particularly in New York where he had a near 50-point deficit a month ago and now is behind Clinton by just 14-points, Sanders needed to fundamentally alter the overall dynamics of the race. This debate was his best opportunity yet, and while he finally took the gloves off and went for the jugular, it's unclear if his effort was enough to change the state of the race with just days before New Yorkers go to the ballot box.
Sanders landed some potent barbs against Clinton. He tied her to Wall Street by questioning her donations from the financial service industry as well as her private paid speeches. Sanders, along with the moderators, also antagonized Clinton more than usual over the release of her speech transcripts. This knock on Clinton served two purposes. First, it amplified the perception Sanders has been trying to create in which he paints Clinton has having a cozy relationship with Wall Street. Secondly, it served the purpose of exacerbating concerns about her trustworthiness and honesty after Clinton repeatedly refused to release the transcripts unless Republicans do the same. Her lack of a better response to this issue continues to haunt her campaign and makes her look like she's hiding something.
Also noteworthy was when Sanders caught Clinton in a miniature flip-flop over the $15 per hour minimum wage issue. Initially Clinton said emphatically that she'd supported the "fight for $15," yet then backtracked saying she supported a national $12 minimum wage. He also drove the conversation on climate change, a flagship issue for Democrats, and questioned Clinton's resolve on the issue given her maxed out contributions from 43 fossil fuel industry lobbyists and the big campaign cash her SuperPAC has received from the same interests. Potentially, the most provocative statement came from Sanders in an attempt to appeal to African American voters when he called Clinton's past comments of "super predators" a flat out "racist term." The politically advantageous move was clearly an attempt for Sanders to exploit the issue in order to make inroads with this crucial constituency. It remains to be seen whether or not it worked.
On the flip side, like always, Clinton had another solid debate performance. She held her own, came off looking Presidential, deeply knowledgable about every issue and at times even broke out of her often polished demeanor to convey intense passion, particularly when it came to gun control.
A master of policy, Clinton displayed an unrivaled understanding of each topic discussed. She smartly hit Sanders on his imperfect record on gun control, a cogent issue in crime-ridden New York. Pivoting away from his attacks against her for not releasing her speech transcripts, Clinton slammed Sanders for not releasing his own tax returns, which at the time made him look somewhat like a hypocrite. And in speaking to the expansive Jewish population in New York, Clinton was a vigorous defender of Israel while Sanders doubled down on his statements where he said the Jewish-state's attacks against Gaza were "disproportionate." Similar to past debates, Clinton also continued to wrap her arms around President Obama, still the most popular figure among Democratic Party voters, especially among minority voters.
Her most epic line of the night, however, was when she implored the moderators to have a discussion that pertains to women's rights issues. The matter isn't just a bedrock issue for Democrats, but it also directly and indirectly implies the historical significance of Clinton's candidacy as the possible first woman President in the U.S.
Taking everything into account, last night's debate was entertaining but the verdict is still out about whether or not it transformed the overall contours of the New York primary race. Both candidates pushed similar narratives to what we've seen on the campaign trail in recent days, but with the magnifying glass and the intense media coverage at this debate, there's no telling if and how the needle was moved forward in a helpful way for either candidate. Guess we'll find out in four days as the clock ticks closer to April 19th.