If Bernie Sanders were a superhero, his name would most certainly be Teflon Man.
Throughout his nearly three decades in Congress, he has shown an uncanny ability to shrug off all kinds of criticism — from his postnuptial travels to the Soviet Union to the heart attack he had in the midst of his presidential campaign.
Last night’s debate posed the biggest test to date of Mr. Sanders’s political superpowers.
Early indications were that it would be Mr. Sanders’s time in the barrel. In the days before the debate, Joe Biden hit him on guns, health care and reports that he considered a primary challenge against President Barack Obama in 2012. Aides to Michael Bloomberg accused Mr. Sanders of being the candidate handpicked by President Vladimir Putin.
That’s where the knifing started Tuesday night, with Mr. Bloomberg arguing that Russia is helping Mr. Sanders get the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Sanders brushed it off, then parried the attack by questioning Mr. Bloomberg’s record in China. “Let me tell Mr. Putin, I’m not a good friend of President Xi of China,” he said, alluding to Mr. Bloomberg’s business interests in the country and his comments last year that Xi Jinping is “not a dictator.”
Other attacks on Mr. Sanders — over his praise for Fidel Castro, his electability, the costs of his plans, his support for the filibuster — seemed to go along the same lines. The charge was leveled by Mr. Biden or Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar and then brushed away by Mr. Sanders.
And then, the other candidates, somewhat mystifyingly, dropped the argument.
Some of this was the fault of the moderators, who were often unwilling to press lines of questioning. After Mr. Biden accused Mr. Sanders of causing “carnage on our streets” by voting for a law he said undermined efforts to hold gun manufacturers accountable for mass shootings, the moderators opted against following up.
But clearly the candidates also made a choice to push only so hard when it came to attacking Mr. Sanders — a decision that reflects the power of his base in the Democratic Party. Attack Mr. Sanders and you risk alienating his young, liberal base, in many ways the future of the party and a force almost certainly necessary to win the general election.
Perhaps Elizabeth Warren’s performance best embodies the Sanders tango.
Clearly, she can land an attack. When it came to Mr. Bloomberg, Ms. Warren seemed to hold nothing back, laying into him for bankrolling her Republican opponent during her first Senate campaign and citing her own story of pregnancy discrimination to bring up an allegation against him.
“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” Ms. Warren said. (Mr. Bloomberg denied making the comment.)
Mr. Sanders, however, prompted a much gentler contrast. “Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Ms. Warren said.
She argued that she was more effective at fighting big banks and filling in the details of a health care plan. “Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done,” she added.
Mr. Sanders disputes that argument, saying he will motivate a grass-roots movement of supporters who will push for change.
But their conversation didn’t get any more heated than that last night. Given Mr. Sanders’s standing in the race, that kind of kid-glove treatment could end up handing him the nomination.
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Want more debate coverage?
Here’s the recap that’s on the front page of the newspaper: The debate plunged repeatedly into an unsightly spectacle of flailing hands and raised voices, and even outright chaos.
Mr. Sanders, onstage for the first time as the unambiguous front-runner, made clear that the changing circumstances would not much change the man, our news analysis says.
So, who won the debate? Several candidates may have done what they needed to do, but campaign experts weighed in on who did it best.
We fact-checked the candidates on the issues, including Mr. Biden’s role in writing crime bills, the costs of Mr. Sanders’s health care plan and Mr. Bloomberg’s record in New York.
How much speaking time did each candidate get — and what did they talk about? Here’s our chart.
From our colleague Shane Goldmacher:
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