It’s not often that I get the chance to say this, but the Democrats’ debate in South Carolina last night was actually worth tuning in for and delivered some red meat in a race which had thus far been tired and formulaic. In previous outings, the only heat was provided by Martin O’Malley, sniping at both Clinton and Sanders in an effort to get somebody to notice him. Meanwhile, Clinton talked past Sanders, attacking Republicans, and Bernie played the part of Hillary’s number one fan. That formula was washed away last night. O’Malley was still barking, but he largely faded into the background as Clinton slammed Sanders at every turn and the Vermont Senator hit back on everything from her Wall Street ties to her image as more of the same old politics. You can read a transcript of the debate here if you missed it.

One of the first things that struck me was the biased, racially charged nature of all three of the candidates’ answers. The event was hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus and took place in South Carolina, where the Democrats really need to turn out the black vote heavily. That wasn’t lost on any of the three contenders and they raced to outdo each other in terms of being tuned in to the Black Lives Matter movement. Clinton in particular went all in on that front as soon as she got the opportunity to talk about the police.

Well, sadly it’s reality, and it has been heartbreaking, and incredibly outraging to see the constant stories of young men like Walter Scott, as you said, who have been killed by police officers. Their needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.

And, that requires a very clear, agenda for retraining police officers, looking at ways to end racial profiling, finding more ways to really bring the disparities that stalk our country into high relief. One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison. That’s the statistic. I want people hear to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men, and very often, the black men are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for offensive that do not lead to the same results for white men.

This is a tripwire topic for Clinton and she may have sprung the trap on herself last night. Notice that she’s not talking about a handful of bad cops or a suspect department in Chicago or New Orleans. She was mouthing the words of BLM leaders and indicting the entire criminal justice system. That no doubt plays well in South Carolina, but we’ll see what sort of reaction it receives in Iowa and New Hampshire. Also, Clinton clearly realizes that she needs to turn out the black vote nationally in the same numbers that Barack Obama managed in order to win, but she can’t afford to lose the white vote either. Rest assured that some of those quotes will show up in the GOP oppo file this fall.

Speaking of Obama, another pitfall awaiting both Clinton and Sanders was their competition to see who could hug the President more tightly. For her part, Clinton slammed Sanders for criticizing Obama in 2011 (a hilarious charge considering everything she said about him in 2008) and sounded for all the world like she was promising a third Obama term, particularly when it comes to Obamacare. (ABC News)

“We’ve accomplished so much already. I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t want to start over again with a contentious debate,” Clinton said. “To tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction.”

Sanders called it a “disingenuous” attack. He made clear, as he did throughout the night, that he’s not satisfied with the status quo.

“No one is tearing this up. We’re going to go forward,” Sanders said.

As soon as the opening presented itself, Sanders went into full Elizabeth Warren mode and started linking Clinton to Wall Street and big banks at every opportunity. (Politico)

“The first difference is I don’t take money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs,” Sanders said, eliciting a few jeers and boos from the audience…

“I find it very strange that a major financial institution that pays $5 billion in fines for breaking the law — not one of their executives is prosecuted, while kids who smoke marijuana, they get a jail sentence,” Sanders said.

Later, Sanders returned to the topic, vowing, “Goldman Sachs is not going to bring forth a secretary of the Treasury for a Sanders administration.”

The one place where Clinton really seemed to land some punches on Sanders was on guns and it played very well with the obviously anti-gun crowd. Bernie tried to deflect the charges, but it was probably Clinton’s best moment. (Bloomberg)

Clinton responded with a lengthy recounting of Sanders’s record, arguing that “he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times.”

She continued, as Sanders looked down at his lectern: “He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted for immunity for gun makers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important gun legislation in 20 years. He voted to let guns go on to Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”

The crowd, either by chance or design, was definitely pro-Clinton. She got a lot more applause breaks whereas the ovations for Sanders seemed more polite and measured. That may be because of the heavy minority makeup of the audience, since one poll after another shows that Sanders is having trouble breaking through with that segment of the Democrats’ base. Still, the reception of Bernie’s message around the country – at least going by the press coverage this morning – was far more enthusiastic than what we saw in that room last night.

Two thing were clear when the dust settled: Hillary Clinton has realized that she’s got an actual fight on her hands and she’s coming after Sanders hard. And Bernie, for his part, is not on the stage as an “issues candidate” trying to inject his priorities into the debate. Sanders actually believes he can win this thing and he’s ready to throw everything including the kitchen sink at Hillary. The national polls still make it look like Clinton wins the primary in a walk, but if Bernie can manage to win Iowa and New Hampshire, I think I’ve got to finally give him a better than zero percent chance at it. We can only hope that’s true because I remain convinced that no matter how far our country has strayed of late, we’re not so far gone that we’re ever going to elect a socialist.

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