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Who Won the Democratic Debate?

Hillary Clinton, guarding a commanding lead in the Democratic presidential contest, deployed a prevent defense in the party’s second debate on Saturday night. It appeared to work.

The former Secretary of State faced a field trimmed to two rivals — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, both of whom demonstrated ambivalence about trying to draw blood. And Clinton for the most part ably parried their critiques by drawing on her mastery of her briefing book.

In what was likely a relatively lightly watched Saturday night broadcast that remained sleepy through its first hour, the burden was on Clinton’s chasers to score a race-rattling victory or somehow lure Clinton into a disqualifying gaffe. Neither succeeded, though Clinton, pressed by both rivals and the CBS moderators, at one point defended her campaign contributions from Wall Street by noting her work for the industry after the September 11, 2001 attacks — a head-scratcher, at best.

The debate took place in the shadow of the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris on Friday, and CBS shook up the format to open with a 20-minute segment on how to address the gathering threat from ISIS. On that score, the candidates agreed more than not, advocating for an American response in concert with an Arab coalition. Republicans on Saturday were already jumping on Clinton’s refusal to name radical Islam as the enemy (she prefers “radical jihadists,” to avoid fueling claims by some in the region that the West is waging war on their religion).

But the Democratic rivals didn’t really mix it up until the conversation turned to domestic priorities. There, on the minimum wage, regulating the financial sector, and further reforming heath care, the candidates directly engaged with each other.

The debate over Wall Street prompted the sharpest exchanges. Sanders accused Clinton of being in league with the industry after accepting millions of dollars in political donations. “Let’s not be naive about it,” Sanders said. “Why over her political career has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.” But prompted by a moderator to get specific about how Clinton’s been compromised, Sanders struggled. And the debate mired in a back-and-forth between the two over the advisability of reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act. The Depression-era law separated commercial and investment banking activities, and some on the left blame it’s repeal under then-President Bill Clinton for later enabling the financial crisis. But even that brief of a background was more than anybody bothered to offer during the broadcast, and it’s likely that the Sanders-Clinton confrontation over it went over the heads of a big chunk of the viewing audience.

Throughout, where the candidates diverged, it was mostly Clinton occupying the moderate ground against a tandem challenge from Sanders and O’Malley on the left. On the minimum wage, for example, she stood by her endorsement of a $12 federal standard that states and local governments could hike based on their needs, while they argued for a $15 national baseline. O’Malley, who’s been stuck in the low single-digits in polls, adopted a more confrontational posture, suggesting the economist Clinton cited in her answer works on Wall Street (in fact, he’s a Princeton professor).

In a sign of where the energy lies in the party, Clinton’s moderation also cast her as President Obama’s defender, while her rivals agitated for more liberal solutions. She argued against slashing military spending amid rising global threats; advocated building on the successes of Obama’s health care overhaul rather than junking the reform in favor of a single-payer system; and expressed skepticism about the workability of Sanders’s call for universal free college.

Still, considered against a Republican field riven by deep philosophical differences over the most basic issues, the Democratic debate looked like a campfire singalong. Sanders and O’Malley both picked their spots to challenge Clinton, but they both did so with mannered expressions of respect. Neither one evinced the urgency of lagging far behind the frontrunner and losing time to make up the distance, though both of them are.