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Winners and losers in the 3rd Democratic presidential debate

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 12/20/2015 Chris Cillizza
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The three Democrats running for president gathered in New Hampshire Saturday night for their third and final debate of 2015. It was a feisty affair with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley aggressively attacking each other at almost every turn.

I picked a handful of winners and losers from the night that was. They're below.

Winners

* Hillary Clinton: The former Secretary of State was the only one on stage Saturday night who looked like she could step into the presidency tomorrow.  Her knowledge on foreign policy -- from ISIS to Syria and beyond -- was significantly greater than her rivals, and it showed. (ABC moderator Martha Raddatz was the only one on stage confident enough in her own knowledge of foreign policy to go after Clinton.)

Clinton also demonstrated her ability to play to local interests -- she touted Market Basket, which is based in Tewksbury, Massaschusetts, for example. She repeatedly turned the focus away from the differences among the candidates on stage and instead pointed out the differences she (and the other Democratic candidates) have with controversial Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. She showed a sense of humor; asked by ABC moderator David Muir whether "corporate America should love Hillary Clinton " "Everyone should," she responded to raucous applause in the room.

And, she demonstrated a willingness to whack away at O'Malley (on his acceptance of corporate dollars as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association) and Sanders (on the cost of his proposals) -- showing that she was not content to sit back and play defense.

Clinton's performance proved, yet again, how gifted she is as a debater. And, it made me wonder, yet again, why her campaign seems to want to limit debates in this primary. She shines in them -- and did so again tonight.  Her closing statement -- invoking the new "Star Wars" movie -- was the cherry on top of a tour de force performance.

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* Donald Trump: No one loves attention more than The Donald.  And, his name was invoked over and over again on Saturday night -- by, most notably, Clinton. I could almost imagine Trump sitting in Trump Tower -- he never leaves there, right? -- grinning broadly every time Hillary attacked him. I guarantee you Trump will weave the amount he was attacked by Clinton into his stump speech as evidence that Democrats are obsessed with him.

* Martha Raddatz: Raddatz moderated the debate alongside "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir. But, she was the star of the show. ABC's chief global correspondent did exactly what a good moderator should: She let the candidates mix it up when it made sense for them to and injected herself into the conversation when a candidate said something that she knew wasn't right. Raddatz made a very strong case for the reporter-moderator tonight; she is someone who knows her subject matter inside and out -- a sort of knowledge that allowed her to fact-check the candidates in real time. She made this debate considerably better. Period.

* "Jeopardy!": Because I thought the debate started at 8 pm eastern, I tuned in to ABC about 15 minutes beforehand and was treated to "Double Jeopardy! and "Final Jeopardy!". Did you know T.S. Eliot's nickname was "Old Possum"? I didn't either until I watched "Jeopardy!" That is still a damn good show.

DU.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Governor Martin O'Malley debate in New Hampshire. REUTERS/Brian Snyder © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post DU.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Governor Martin O'Malley debate in New Hampshire. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Losers

* Martin O'Malley: The former Maryland governor came into the debate with a plan: Lump Sanders and Clinton into a heap as Washington politicians -- not to mention old -- and distinguish himself as the youthful guy who has never spent a minute in the nation's capitol. The problem with that plan was two fold: (1) it made him too scripted and (2) it felt super-forced.  After Clinton and Sanders had a kumbaya moment over the Democratic National Committee data breach that roiled the race over the last 24 hours, O'Malley condemned the bickering between the two. Um, what?

O'Malley's low point, however, came when he mentioned that he came from a different generation than the other two candidates on stage -- a not-so-subtle attempt to call Sanders and Clinton old. (Sanders is 74 years old, Clinton is 68; O'Malley is 52 years old.) The crowd got what he was doing -- and booed.

O'Malley's status in the race -- way, way, way behind the top two -- makes debates almost too-pressure-filled for him. He looked so desperate to make a mark or make a moment on Saturday night that he couldn't get out of his own way and often came across as unlikable.

* Bernie Sanders: Sure, if you already liked the Vermont Senator, nothing you heard in the debate will make you like him any less. But, every Sanders's answer seemed to devolve into shouting and outrage -- not a great look when it comes to persuading on-the-fence voters to be for you. Clinton cut Sanders deeply when she bashed the massive costs associated with his proposals, raising the point -- without exactly raising it -- that Sanders would be a massive risk as the Democratic nominee.

On Saturday night,  Sanders looked less like a legitimate threat to Clinton and more like a niche candidate operating at the fringes of the party.

* Democratic National Committee: There's simply no justification for hosting a debate on a Saturday night six days before Christmas. Unless the goal is to ensure that said debate is lightly-watched and, therefore, any mistakes made by the presumptive frontrunner are lessened. (As I mentioned above, I am not sure why her allies think Clinton needs to be sheltered from debates -- she's outstanding in them.)

And, as if that wasn't bad enough, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) had to sit stone-faced -- with a camera trained on her! -- while Sanders excoriated the party committee over its handling of the data breach.  Awkward.

* ABC: Look. I am an adult. Just tell me when the debate starts.  I, like everyone else who planned to watch the debate, was under the impression that 8 pm eastern was when things got going.  Except that the first 30 minutes of ABC's coverage was a roundtable of analysts talking about what might happen.  Just start the damn debate.

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