Not sure about you, but I did not expect to find last night’s Democratic town hall in Iowa all that illuminating. Sure, it was the so-called last best chance for the candidates to make their so-called closing arguments before the Iowa caucuses on Monday. But we’ve seen and heard these three contenders in four debates and in countless news reports. And we’ve gotten used to the increasingly sharp exchanges, the amusing back-and-forths, and the pleas to answer whatever was just asked.
 
The format promised Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley one at a time on a stage at Drake University, answering questions from Iowans, with no time clock and no rebuttals from an opponent. No drama, so it seemed, and when there is no heat there often is no light.
 
But not last night. We actually learned plenty — not about policy, but about personality, or something like that. And we got it because we had the luxury of being able to simply listen to their words.
 
Sanders, the senator from Vermont, went first.
 
I believe, he said, and he repeated it again and again, in different variations. It’s his mantra.
 
I believe.
In my view.
It seems to me.
You might disagree.
 
That’s how Sanders is trying to make this run for his party’s nomination a campaign of ideas. Judge me on my principles, he says, on what I think. It’s not that he doesn’t have policy prescriptions, but what he really wants is your heart and your soul. The head, he knows, will follow.
 
O’Malley, by contrast, was all policy. He spat out what he’s going to do, proposal after proposal — because he said he’s done it all in Baltimore as the former mayor and in Maryland as the former governor.
 
His mantra:
I’m the only candidate.
I’m the first candidate.
 
Which is pretty much what you have to say when you’re the next candidate who’ll be saying goodbye.
Clinton, on the other hand, used language in a less lofty way than Sanders but in a way equally vital to establishing her persona. Hers was the language of experience.
 
The examples she chose to illustrate her beliefs and how she would act went back in time, especially given the age of some of her youthful questioners who were trying to gauge her relevance to them. She cited the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. Her 40-year record of fighting inequality. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Her health care battles in the early 1990s.
 
The former secretary of state used language to demonstrate her toughness and the scars she’s earned over her many years.
 
This has been a tough campaign for the toughest job and I’ve been on the front lines and am a proven fighter who is still standing.
 
And she was far more self-reflective than Sanders, which is what you do when the campaign is all about yourself.
 
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.