CLEAR LAKE, IOWA - Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate on stage at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding. Had she been the only speaker, it would have been a resounding triumph. She was relaxed. The crowd was with her.
The former secretary of state even scored a joke at her own expense, announcing she has launched a Snapchat account. "I love it - those messages disappear all by themselves," she said.
But after her 20 minutes were up, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took the podium and made Clinton look like liberal lite. Clinton had made a series of careful plays and Sanders trumped every one with higher-stakes gambles.
-- Clinton railed against Citizens United, super PACs and the influence of corporate money. Sanders did the same, but pointed out that his dislike of super PACs is so strong he doesn't have one. And his dislike of corporate money is so strong he doesn't take any.
-- Clinton said "black lives matter." Sanders recited the names of unarmed black Americans killed in conflicts with police, then said" "We need to move away from the militarization of police forces" and instill community policing.
-- Clinton wants college affordable. Sanders wants it free.
And on and on.
Both were welcomed warmly by the charged-up crowd that filled the Surf Ballroom and Museum, the kitschy and legendary room in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper played the night they died.
Organizers said the wall-to-wall turnout was the biggest ever for the annual Democratic event established in 2004. Attendees said they'd never seen anything like it, including when Clinton came for her 2008 run (she came in third place behind Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards in the caucuses). That's in line with an campaign season that, 15 months out, is generating unprecedented attention from both the media and the masses.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley followed Sanders. His speech was mostly distinguished by the fact that the small, very vocal cheering squad he brought sat all together on one side of the room, making them sound like the parents of the away team at a high school football game, rooting on a lost cause.
And by the time former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, got going, much of the crowd was headed for the entrances. Chafee's quiet run seems to be entirely based on the mantra "I've been a mayor, a governor and a senator," which voters are neither disputing nor caring about.
Had the Wing Ding been a contest, Clinton would have been declared a slight victor. It was her kind of crowd: older, mostly party officials and volunteers, many of whom have worked to elect Clintons.
But her hammering away at the victimization of the scandal over the 2012 attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, while she made no specific mention of the controversy over her private email server other than the sly joke, played false. And she had one "Clinton moment," when she said not one leading Republican candidate supports a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the United States. Gov. Jeb Bush does, passionately.
Sanders, with his disheveled stack of notes, Brooklyn accent, flyaway hair and passionate socialist take, is a throwback to a more ideological Democratic Party and a time when his ideas were a part of the mainstream political conversation. But while he's generating heat with a populace that's bitterly angry with the establishment and the status quo, it doesn't feel like enough Americans agree with him to elect him.
If the faithful are looking to vote for one of these candidates because they hate what the Republican Party stands for and want to defeat it, then Clinton is the pick. But if they're looking to vote for one of these candidates because they love what liberalism stands for and want to support it ... that would be Sanders.