Bernie Sanders made a full-throated appeal for democratic socialism at CNN’s Democratic town hall in Iowa, but wound up debating a skeptical Chris Cuomo.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was hit by her first questioner, a young man in the audience who said he’s been talking to his friends and “they think you’re dishonest.”
She rambled a bit about the virtue of young people before saying: “I’ve been around a long time. People have thrown all kinds of things at me ... And I’m still standing.” Her second questioner quoted Joe Biden as saying that she, unlike Sanders, was new to the fight for income inequality. She vigorously denied that.
This was the Iowa caucuses in a nutshell: the crowd seemed to favor Sanders, while Clinton had to work harder to generate enthusiasm.
As the Vermont senator was reciting the virtues of universal health care and vowing to fight “the greed of corporate America,” Cuomo kept pointing out the downside.
“What you’re really asking for is one of the biggest tax hikes in history” and pushing a “massive redistribution of wealth,” said Cuomo, the brother and son of New York governors.
“We will raise taxes, yes we will,” Sanders confirmed, but said people would save more by not paying health insurance premiums.
Noting that Hillary Clinton’s husband had famously declared that “the era of big government is over,” Cuomo said: “You’re bringing back the era of big government and making it bigger than ever.”
Sanders didn’t deny that, reframing his mission as protecting the middle class.
Sanders kept bringing up his vote against the Iraq war, even explicitly noting that Hillary had backed the war.
Clinton mentioned how happy she was that President Obama, in a Politico interview, said that she had a harder time in 2008 because, like Ginger Rogers, she had to do everything backwards and in high heels. Hillary is increasingly hugging Obama in the Iowa home stretch.
Cuomo intervened after one of her foreign policy answers, saying the world was less stable and bringing up her Iraq vote. Clinton quickly said the vote was a mistake but pivoted to how she and Obama had restored the trust and confidence of America's allies and her own plan to defeat ISIS, which she did not explain.
In response to a question from a Muslim woman who served in the U.S. armed forces, Clinton attacked Donald Trump, saying his "shameful" language "insults, demeans, denigrates" different people, especially Muslims. With that answer she looked past Sanders and sounded like she was already contesting a general election.
It was a good format for Hillary, who spent most of her portion of the town hall on her feet, animated and gesturing, speaking to the crowd. In anchor interviews, she has a tendency to retreat to safe talking points.
She even favorably quoted the moderator's dad, recalling that Mario Cuomo had once said "you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose." Perhaps her biggest weakness as a candidate is that she generally campaigns in prose.
One major weakness of the format was that the candidates were allowed to go on and on in response to audience questions.
The CNN program was hastily added after the Democratic Party tried to protect Hillary with just six debates, some of them buried on Saturday nights and a holiday weekend. Sanders is running neck and neck with the former first lady in Iowa and has a huge lead in New Hampshire.
In the interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, Obama gave his former secretary of State a not-so-subtle nod:
“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose. I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner … You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.