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A debate of real issues

The candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic debate were all winners — especially in the sense that it was a very satisfying debate. I don’t think anybody at any point was thinking, “This really needs Vice President Joe Biden.”

The crowd at the Democratic debate was perhaps the biggest audience so far that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb played to. But I don’t know if these “lesser lights” candidates did anything to make people want to come see them in the future.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came off as the most confident and spontaneous, and for a woman of natural reticence and privacy, it took work for her to do that. Clinton definitely looked like she’s the one who would do best in a general election debate against a Republican nominee.

Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders got most of the speaking time, most of the big applause breaks and all of the best moments. They were a study in contrasts with each other, and against the opposition: The most memorable moment at the last Republican debate came when former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina witheringly took down businessman and GOP front-runner Donald Trump; one of this debate’s most memorable moments was when Sanders supported Clinton on this season’s most controversial issue.

Bernie got a lot of applause breaks, but his biggest one was for agreeing with Hillary that everyone is tired of hearing about her “damn emails.” When Chafee tried to make an issue of the emails and Hillary was asked if she wanted to respond, she just said, “No.” That got the best response of the night. She should have saved that one for the House Select Committee on Benghazi, aka “Let’s Bring Down Hillary’s Poll Numbers.”

Chafee seemed to be positioning himself as the candidate with no scandals, which doesn’t seem to be a slot that Democratic voters are clamoring for.

O’Malley came off very well, especially with his closing remarks, but was it good enough to change people’s minds? (And not many people’s minds are settled on O’Malley).

Webb got the least amount of time, and he spent most of that time complaining about how he didn’t get as much time. It’s best not to draw undue attention to being slighted.

You know you’re at a Democratic debate when the participants are bragging about how low their National Rifle Association ratings are. In that sense, the NRA even has influence over Democratic politicians — they’re all fighting to earn bad grades from the NRA.

Sanders tried to defend himself with his “D-” grade from the NRA, but O’Malley and Chafee both trumped him with their “F’s.” Poor Jim Webb had to wear his “A” rating like the scarlet letter.

People discovered Chafee was a Republican until recently, and, at times, that Webb sounded as if he were a Republican right now. (Well, he was Secretary of the Navy during Reagan’s administration).

Overall, there was a lot of agreement on the issues. There was definitely a lot of nodding going on. The Democrats proved that you don’t need Trump in order to make interesting television. I know that the producers of “The Celebrity Apprentice” are hoping that’s true.

This debate might not have changed a lot of people’s minds, but I guarantee it stimulated their minds. This debate was more engaging than the Republican debate because there is a better chance the winner of this debate will go on to be president of the United States.

This debate made me think of what Apple’s Steve Jobs once said: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” These candidates strove for excellence. Each of these five Democrats showed a grasp of the issues in detail. And Clinton and Sanders, in particular, showed they could be sharp-edged with each other without throwing playground insults.

The Democratic debate also showed that the Democrats have a wider spectrum of views, ranging from Webb’s Southern conservatism to Sanders’ Brooklyn populism. And while there was agreement on many principles, there were also real differences of opinion — from the greatest danger to our security to gun laws.

Each of the candidates had a firm grasp on their values and their positions, and imparted confidence that none need a learning curve upon entering the presidency. These five know and accept that our Founding Fathers, after trying the alternative, constructed a federal government. Well, that was interesting. And now, it’s back to watching the Republicans fall to pieces in the House of Representatives.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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