The crowd was raucous, even reacting audibly to the questions. The stakes were high, with New York’s big primary was closing in fast.
An impartial decree of who won and lost is tough. Restive Democrats hardened in their view of Hillary Clinton as a status-quo power player probably weren’t converted. And spectators disposed to dismiss Bernie Sanders as radical or making impractical promises will no doubt continue to do so.
Both had stumbles. He seemed to lose his place at one point in the middle of a gun-control answer and she was booed by his boosters for a response on Social Security that critics found slippery.
Both had caustic flares. He said when she brought up backing the Dodd-Frank regulatory bill, “They must have been really crushed by this.” Later on, she said that any time someone disagrees with Sanders on an approach to a problem, ““then you are a member of the establishment.”
Overall, the candidates in Thursday’s Democratic debate did what sports competitors do. They played defense by playing offense.
Facing calls to show how she earned fat fees for a Goldman Sachs speech, Hillary Clinton turned to the fact that rival Bernie Sanders had yet to release his tax forms, which he vowed anew will prove boring.
Pressed on comments he’d already dialed back about Clinton being unqualified to run, Sanders acknowledged her smarts and experience but pivoted quickly to question her judgment.
When challenged on her actions as senator of secretary of state -- whether on banks, wages, health care, or the Mideast -- Clinton looked as always to frame her answers with the claim that she’s confronted the practicalities of governance while Sanders dodges specifics.
“Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” she said at one point.
Rewarded with cheers from supporters, Sanders stuck as always to points of criticism -- about her funds from the fossil fuel industry, her support for fracking overseas, opposition to certain tax changes, slowness in embracing a $15 minimum wage.
But there were angles specifically geared to New York’s primary as well.
They struck differing notes on Israel versus Palestine, with Sanders saying the United States needs to take a more “even-handed role” and calling Israel’s 2014 bombings in Gaza “disproportionate” and Clinton focusing on “incitement” and rockets fired by Hamas.
One sign that President Barack Obama still has approval from many New York Democrats is that Clinton invoked his name and positions repeatedly. She also invoked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s name and brought up her having served a term and a half as senator from the state and professed her love for Brooklyn. Sanders noted his Brooklyn son-of-immigrants roots.
It had elements of their previous eight debates, but with the volume turned all the way up and a certain regional rhythm, all in the run-up to a vote Tuesday that only months ago didn’t promise much of a contest.