Who Won the Democratic Debate?

Five candidates faced off in Las Vegas, as they tried to shake up the race.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Despite dire predictions that the first Democratic presidential debate would be a snoozefest, the Las Vegas summit actually offered a little bit of everything: substance, humor, tension, and one truly baffling Lincoln Chafee answer.

True, it wasn’t as exciting as the Republican debates so far, but what is? Yet even though the debate kicked off with a melodramatic voiceover promising that “This night in Vegas could change the odds ... yet again,” the debate didn’t obviously shake up the race. Hillary Clinton delivered a typically strong performance, much as expected; Bernie Sanders played to type, railing against corporations and inequality. Martin O’Malley kept to his strategy of hitting Clinton. And Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee remained, for the most part, marginal to what was going on.

In the years leading up to the election, some Democrats worried that Clinton would be hobbled by not facing challengers in the primary, and Tuesday night’s debate showed the truth of that point. She’s a polished, experienced debater, and she profited from standing on stage with the four men in the field. Chafee and Webb seemed nervous and uncomfortable, while Sanders was—as always—Sanders: fervent, grumpy, unfiltered, and righteously angry. The factors that have made him an idol to many Democratic voters and eroded Clinton’s polling numbers also make her look more presidential when they’re standing next to each other.

Clinton came with a quiver full of strong lines. Was she really a moderate or a liberal? “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” When O’Malley assailed her, she smiled and said, “I was very pleased when Governor O’Malley endorsed me in 2008. I consider him a friend.” Did she want to respond to an attack from Chafee: Another smile. “No.” How would she represent something different than Barack Obama’s third term? Another smile, then a reminder that she’d be the first woman president.

But while Clinton’s experience may be her calling card, it’s also her greatest weakness. Her lengthy career offers her opponents many opportunities to show the ways that Democratic orthodoxy has changed since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992—and how she has tended to change with it. Her opponents assailed her repeatedly for her vote in favor of the Iraq War; in fact, Chafee and Webb both owe their national profiles in large part to their taking the opposite stance. They protested her vote for the Patriot Act. They criticized her handling of Russia and the Syrian Civil War while she was secretary of state.

Some of the strongest blows landed on Clinton came from Clinton herself. Discussing questions about her private email account, she avowed, “I have been as transparent as I know how to be”—a line that seems destined to be repeated in attack ads by opponents who will connect it to other lawyerly statements by both Hillary and Bill Clinton. Challenged on her refusal to take a stance on the Keystone XL pipeline, she said, “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.” That’s true, but it only highlights how long she avoided taking any position at all.

Clinton landed a few good punches on her opponents, too, despite predictions that she might try to remain above the fray. In addition to reminding O’Malley of his past support for her, she went after Sanders twice in the early minutes, calling for reform of capitalism rather than revolution and assailing him for being too soft on guns.

Guns turned out to be one of the few areas of serious disagreement among the candidates. O’Malley and Clinton favor a stricter set of gun regulations, while Sanders—who represents the rural state of Vermont in the Senate—has long been more equivocal, voting against the Brady Bill in 1993, for example. A curious alliance emerged between Sanders, the most liberal candidate on stage, and Webb, the most conservative: In addition to being to the right of their party on firearms, the two men both have strong ties to rural areas, and they both have strong ties to white working-class voters, and strained relations with minorities.

Overall, the Democratic candidates simply don’t have the same divisions that the Republicans one do, and that showed through on Tuesday night. The candidates have differences about how to achieve their goals, but they agree on a broad set of principles: They want to raise taxes on the wealthy, expand the social-safety net, regulate guns, reduce mass incarceration, and, for the most part, avoid foreign entanglements. They all want to fight climate change and expand access to higher education. There are gradations, of course—Sanders and O’Malley have far more sweeping plans for Wall Street reform than Clinton—but the gulf is more over degree than type.

Clinton tried to remind viewers of this unity time and again. Whenever a gulf appeared between candidates on stage, she’d mention that all of the ideas they were raising were far more progressive than anything Republicans had to offer. And she got help from Bernie Sanders at her moment of greatest weakness—discussing her email scandal. The Vermont senator, who will take any opportunity to rail against the media for asking about “distractions,” cut in to defender her. “Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right,” he said. “I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Clinton, looking relieved, turned and shook Sanders’s hand.

As for Sanders himself, it’s tough to rate his performance—Bernie is Bernie in all situations, sticking for the most part to his core issues of the economy and inequality. (In one of the more amusing moments of the night, Sanders railed against “casino capitalism”—while on the stage at an actual casino.)

The candidate who was commonly said to have the most to win or lose Tuesday was Martin O’Malley. It was hard to spot a breakout moment for him tonight, though he had several poised answers and managed to elicit big cheers from the audience. But he still struggled to break out—in part because Sanders has stolen his thunder as the progressive standard bearer.

Jim Webb was the night’s wonkiest candidate, with each answer involving a mini-seminar on policy. But Webb seemed nervous and got irritated about not being more deeply involved—a problem exacerbated by his struggle to get the point in the time allotted to him. The less said about Lincoln Chafee, the better. The former Rhode Island governor and senator tried to undermine Clinton’s credibility, but delivered by far the worst answer of the night when he defended his vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 by protesting that it was his first vote in the Senate, and he’d just taken his father’s seat. It was an answer in which he both failed to take responsibility for his own actions and also reminded viewers that he owes his political career to his father’s success.

All of that leaves the Democratic field much as where it was when the night began: Clinton is still the clear frontrunner and most polished candidate in the field. Sanders has impressive star power, but it’s still not clear he can overcome Clinton. O’Malley is stuck behind them. And Webb and Chafee still won’t be president. —David Graham

11:16 p.m.: As Joe Biden considers running for president, this debate didn't give him any added incentive to do so. Hillary Clinton didn't reveal any major weaknesses, and her rivals failed to capitalize on the email question, with Bernie Sanders even jumping to her defense. Since Biden also voted for the Iraq War, he also can't use that to distinguish himself from Clinton as some of her other opponents did. —Matt Ford

11:10 p.m.: Clinton seemed to have a very steady night, and Sanders gave her a nice assist with his vocal support for moving on from the email issue. She was clearly very prepared and showed humor in a way that didn't feel canned, for the most part. Clinton was a strong debater in 2008, and this seems to be a better format for her than interviews or press conferences. That said, Sanders did little to diminish his candidacy, so the underlying dynamic of the race might not change much. —Russell Berman

11:08 p.m.: From a rhetorical standpoint, Bernie Sanders’s straightforward closing statement about standing up to the wealthy, along with his return to his oft-used phrase “in my view” throughout the night, emphasized his self-conception as an outsider. He has always been an advocate for political revolution, whereas most politicians are far more conciliatory—at least on the campaign trail. —Tyler Bishop

11:03 p.m.: Everyone in tonight's debate performed passably well, including Hillary Clinton. But given her enormous advantage in name recognition, I'd say that everyone else won by standing on stage beside her, and she lost insofar as she was forced to square off against rivals for the first time in a setting that made them appear like equals. Bernie Sanders in particular showed that he could hold his own next to her. He'll presumably have some money pouring in as a result. But guessing at how the average viewer will respond to these debates is always speculative, and I'll be curious to see if the polls move as a result of an event that didn't include Donald Trump or, presumably, the viewership that comes with him. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:01 p.m.: Five candidates walked into the room tonight. Hillary needed to avoid mistakes, and she has. Bernie drew strong contrasts, but may not have changed many minds. Webb had a strong night, but perhaps not strong enough to revive his moribund campaign. O’Malley struggled to break through, even as he finished strong. Only one candidate, though, seems to have actually shifted the odds he faces: Lincoln Chafee. Remarkably, he found new ways to make his election even less probable than it already was. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:59 p.m.: Clinton, in her closing statement, touts her "tenacity," saying she is the candidate persistent enough to keep fighting to get things done. —Molly Ball

10:55 p.m.: Webb got a surprisingly tepid response when he made reference to his military service in citing an actual enemy on the battlefield. That answer would have brought the house down in a Republican debate, I'd think. —Russell Berman

10:54 p.m.: Last question is each candidate's proudest enemy. Chafee: the coal lobby. O'Malley: the NRA. Clinton: "In addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians, probably ... the Republicans." Sanders: Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry. Webb: "I'd say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that injured me, but he's not around to talk to." —Molly Ball

10:53 p.m.: Huh. This surprises me, but marijuana lobbyist Tom Angell tweets that this is the first time Sanders has come out in favor of legalization. —Molly Ball

10:49 p.m.: The better question for presidential candidates on state-level marijuana legalization isn't whether they support the initiatives, but whether they would allow federal law-enforcement agencies to arrest people for it in legalized states. —Matt Ford

10:48 p.m.: Sanders is asked how he would work with Republicans to get things done. He responds by attacking the GOP as obstructionist. "The only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together." He seems to be saying that, if he gets elected, something will have shifted in American politics that Republicans will be forced to respond to. —Molly Ball

10:48 p.m.: Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to arrest and imprison people who use marijuana... but doesn't want to make recreational use legal either. Should all the people caught in states where it isn't legal be sentenced to community service or what? —Conor Friedersdorf

10:48 p.m.: Clinton doesn't budge on her stance of waiting-and-seeing how the legalization of marijuana goes in Colorado and Washington before weighing in on Nevada’s proposal. —Russell Berman

10:46 p.m.: Sanders says he would vote yes on Nevada’s ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. —Molly Ball

10:43 p.m.: Big cheers for Hillary as she pivots from a tough question about the cost to taxpayers of her agenda by attacking Republicans for going after Planned Parenthood. —Molly Ball

10:40 p.m.: It’s true—Bernie Sanders has successfully received several hundred thousand small-dollar contributions. His camp recently announced that it had raised $26 million. But whether that can carry him through the primary remains to be seen, especially as the battle on the airwaves heats up. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:38 p.m.: O’Malley promises a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050. On this issue, as on so many others, he aligns remarkably well with the expressed preferences of the Democratic base—better, in fact, than Hillary Clinton. But his delivery offers some clues as to why he hasn’t been able to convert that into any substantial support. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:37 p.m.: Sanders points out he’s the only candidate who is not a millionaire and says, “I do not have a super PAC.” —Molly Ball

10:36 p.m.: Clinton, pressed on her appeal as an insider in the year of the political outsider, again cites her status as the potential first woman president. She says rather awkwardly that she has “the commitment of a lifetime and the experience of a lifetime.” —Molly Ball

10:33 p.m.: Anderson Cooper teases a marijuana question after the commercial break by noting, “Some of the candidates have tried marijuana, as has probably everybody in this room.” —Matt Ford

10:30 p.m.: “Here’s where I disagree.” This is where Bernie Sanders stands out: He has been a genuinely strong voice against corporate America and income inequality since his start in politics. —Tyler Bishop

10:28 p.m.: Hillary Clinton's substantive answer on whether she would “represent a third term” of President Obama is pretty significant. She said she would “build on” and “go beyond” his  record. In other words, she is not a change candidate for 2016 (aside from her gender, of course). Sanders suggested he would make a sharper departure from Obama. —Matt Ford

10:27 p.m.: Hillary Clinton has insisted that not only would she not be serving President Obama’s third term, or her husband’s third term for that matter. As far as how she would be different, she said, she’d “go further,” leaving it up to interpretation. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:25 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee says that he would bring Edward Snowden home without jail time. Hillary Clinton disagrees, saying he should face jail. Martin O'Malley agrees. Bernie Sanders says Edward Snowden did something important and that should mitigate his punishment. And Jim Webb would leave his judgment to the legal system, but says we have a serious problem with surveillance on Americans that should be ended. On the whole, Clinton seems weakest among the candidates on privacy as it relates to surveillance. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:25 p.m.: Hillary Clinton is not tacking nearly as far left on national security as she is on domestic issues. She defended her vote for the Patriot Act and said Edward Snowden “broke the laws” and should be brought home to "face the music." Both of those answers formed a sharp contrast to those offered by Bernie Sanders. —Matt Ford

10:24 p.m.: Shockingly little debate about the metric system so far. —Molly Ball

10:22 p.m.: Bernie Sanders says that he would shut down NSA surveillance on American phone calls and emails—and implies that he might try to rein in corporate surveillance, too. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:21 p.m.: Still watching? Then you’ve outlasted Lindsey Graham, a man who might’ve been expected to show a little more sympathy for a stage full of presidential candidates struggling to get noticed. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:19 p.m.: Clinton pivots to attacking the Republicans on immigration, noting that she would go farther than Obama’s executive orders and lauding the Dreamers. Immigration is a policy area where she's pleasantly surprised liberals with her boldness. —Molly Ball

10:16 p.m.: Sanders gets questioned on his other major deviation from much of the Democratic base, his historic opposition to increased immigration—a relic of the old Democratic divide between labor and Hispanics, who are now largely united on the issue. —Molly Ball

10:15 p.m.: With Dana Bash’s question about Social Security for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic debate becomes the first of the 2016 election cycle to pass the Bechdel test. —Matt Ford

10:14 p.m.: Democrats have a clear interest in pandering to college students. In offering everyone free tuition to public colleges, Hillary Clinton would be engaging in a vast redistribution of wealth in the wrong direction. Free tuition for poor kids who meet academic qualifications is one thing. Free tuition for everyone is a wrongheaded, regressive idea. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:13 p.m.: This debate is quickly turning into what most people expected: a showdown between Clinton and Sanders. And unlike the Republican debates, there have been very few substantive differences on matters of policy—Clinton and Sanders have extremely similar platforms at the end of the day. So it largely (at least at this point) comes down to their voting histories and electability. Sanders looks attractive to most tried-and-true liberals on the former and Clinton on the latter. —Tyler Bishop

10:12 p.m.: Shorter Chafee: “They made me a senator! It wasn’t my idea! Oh my God, what am I doing here?” —Molly Ball

10:10 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee might get his 15 minutes of fame after all, but it's likely to come in a “Saturday Night Live” parody after his stumbling explanation of his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall, which he blamed on having just arrived in the Senate. At one point, he told Anderson Cooper he was "being a little rough" by harping on it. —Russell Berman

10:09 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee is writing off his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall by saying it was his first vote in the Senate, and he'd just filled his father's seat after John Chafee died. He also says it was a 95-5 vote. But it seems unwise (to say the least) to remind voters that he only got to the Senate because his father held the seat—and besides, the Iraq war vote, which he's so proud of opposing, was also quite lopsided. —David Graham

10:08 p.m.:  And, to follow David, Webb is clearly irritated about it. “This hasn’t been equal time,” he told Anderson. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:07 p.m.:  Webb is the wonkiest candidate on stage—his answers, from Iraq to TARP, often involve a mini-seminar on policy. The problem is that he seldom manages to get his point in during his allotted time. —David Graham

10:05 p.m.: A classic Hillaryism: “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.” She recently declared herself against the controversial pipeline after years of avoiding the issue. —Molly Ball

10:05 p.m.: Hillary Clinton with a rather awkward reminder to viewers that all of the Democratic candidates are pretty old. It looked like she was trying to add up all the years of experience and just lost count. —Matt Ford

10:03 p.m.: Sanders: “In my view, Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.” —David Graham

10:02 p.m. Sanders has twice (I believe) referred to himself in the third person. For some reason, aging senators running for president seem to like this trick, but it didn’t work out so well for Bob Dole. —David Graham

10:02 p.m.: Hillary Clinton talks tough about Wall Street. She and her husband also take an awful lot of money from huge financial institutions. I have a hard time believing that those institutions are enriching a woman, personally and politically, who is going to act against their interests if she gets into power. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:02 p.m.: Clinton, who recently rolled out a plan to regulate Wall Street, defends her plan as more comprehensive and “tougher” than O’Malley’s vision of reinstating the Glass-Steagall banking regulations, which were repealed on her husband's watch. Sanders, who favors breaking up the banks, says, “That’s not true." —Molly Ball

10:00 p.m.: Specifics on how to accomplish criminal-justice reform or reduce mass incarceration were neither requested from the moderators nor given by the candidates. Given its importance to many in the Democratic base, it’s a little surprising the debate didn't spend more time on it beyond a “black lives matter/all lives matter” question. —Matt Ford

9:59 p.m.: Hillary came prepared for the question about her personal wealth and ability to relate to regular people. “Both Bill and I have been very blessed. Neither of us came from wealthy families, and we’ve both worked incredibly hard our whole lives.” She says she wants everyone else to have the same opportunities. —Molly Ball

9:58 p.m.: Here we go: Sanders is finally getting into full socialist dudgeon, demanding a $15 minimum wage, no free-trade agreements, and free college. What he doesn't spell out explicitly, but does imply, is massive government job-creation programs. —David Graham

9:58 p.m.: One of the questions heading into this debate was to what extent the Democrats would embrace or distance themselves from President Obama's record. So far, Clinton and O'Malley have cited him favorably several times, while no one has criticized him directly. —Russell Berman

9:57 p.m.: Webb is in a tough spot here, because he truly has been working on ending mass incarceration longer than anyone else on the stage. But his focus on the white working class makes it very hard for him to appeal to black voters—and the typical Democratic voter—on that basis. —David Graham

9:57 p.m.: Hillary Clinton correctly notes that mass incarceration is one of the few genuinely bipartisan issues in Washington today—a testament not to the moral fiber of Congress but the scale of the crisis in American criminal justice. —Matt Ford

9:55 p.m.: In contrast to the Republican debates, the moderator has largely kept the candidates in check tonight. The exception is Clinton, who has rolled over Anderson Cooper's attempts to cut her off over and over again. —David Graham

9:54 p.m.: Sanders has been assailed for being insufficiently attentive to people of color, but his answer on the question about black lives matter shows how quickly he's added it to his rotation—citing Sandra Bland, police violence, and mass incarceration. It's often said of Sanders that he hasn't changed over the years on almost anything, but this is a good example to the contrary. —David Graham

9:53 p.m.: The question, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” is a dumb frame. It embeds a false dichotomy that even those who say “black lives matter” and take offense at “all lives matter” do not believe. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:52 p.m.: O'Malley, who has attacked the DNC for scheduling just six primary debates, directs a zinger at Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is in the audience: “Look how glad we are actually to be talking about the issues!” —Molly Ball

9:51 p.m.: Chafee, addressing Hillary's emails, repeats his critique of the Iraq War and says American credibility is at stake. Cooper asks Hillary if she'd like to respond. “No.”—Matt Ford

9:51 p.m.: Many viewers tuned in to watch a combative Bernie Sanders take on Hillary Clinton. But Bernie delivered the line of the night by coming to Hillary’s defense. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:49 p.m.: Bernie Sanders just won his audition for vice president. —Russell Berman

9:49 p.m.: This is vintage Sanders, railing against the media for talking about things besides economic issues. —David Graham

9:48 p.m.: Sanders: “Let me say something that may not be great politics, and that is that I think the secretary is right. The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” —Molly Ball

9:48 p.m.: Hillary gets the email question: “It wasn’t the best choice.” Points out she'll testify before the Benghazi committee, then pivots to using Kevin McCarthy's quote to attack the committee as a political witch hunt. —Molly Ball

9:47 p.m.: During the commercial break, CNN aired a macabre commercial from “Stop Hillary PAC” with voice actors impersonating the four dead Americans from the Benghazi attacks to criticize her leadership. —Matt Ford

9:46 p.m.: O’Malley and Sanders are both appealing to the left by saying that climate change is the greatest national security threat to the nation. It’s worth noting that the Pentagon also rates it a threat—if not the top one. —David Graham

9:44 p.m.: What’s the greatest threat to national security? Loose nukes, says Hillary. No, it’s climate change, counters Bernie. Both answers reflect their own experiences and the emphases of their campaigns. But Jim Webb offers up an answer much closer to the expert consensus: China poses the greatest strategic threat, the Middle East the sharpest operational threat, and cybersecurity the greatest day-to-day challenge. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:41 p.m.: “I am not a pacifist,” Bernie Sanders says, before noting that he supported military intervention in Kosovo and Afghanistan. . It’s an echo of Barack Obama's message from years ago against the Iraq war: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war,” he said then. —Russell Berman

9:40 p.m.: Anderson Cooper just offered Jim Webb a chance to slam Sanders for applying for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Webb steadfastly refused to take it. There’s an interesting kinship between Sanders, the most liberal candidate on stage, and Webb, the most conservative. The two worked together in the Senate on veterans’ affairs, and they’re both from rural, very white areas and are to the right of the Democratic Party on gun control. And of course, both have opposed recent wars very strongly. —David Graham

9:39 p.m.:Hillary Clinton pegs her defense of the Libyan intervention to the fact that Libyans held one free election afterwards. And then? She doesn’t mention the Islamist militias that gained strength in Libya, the chaos that has destroyed the lives of so many civilians in Libya, or the spillover effects that harmed civilians in Mali. An intervention is not wise just because it results in one election, as the wars in Iraq ands Afghanistan showed. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:38 p.m.: Foreign policy has been relegated to a secondary role in the Democratic campaign trail, where the candidates have tended to focus on domestic and economic issues. But tonight, it’s front and center. Partially, that’s due to the presence of Jim Webb. But mostly, it’s because these candidates are farther apart on foreign policy than on most domestic issues, so it’s a natural way for them to draw contrasts.  —Yoni Appelbaum

9:35 p.m.: I’m not sure if the “I am in the middle” comment from Clinton was more of a recognition of the fact that she is the primary target for all of the other candidates or a not-so-subtle attempt at reminding viewers that she’s, by far, the frontrunner. —Tyler Bishop

9:33 p.m.: Foreign policy is where Jim Webb can roll. He just offered a short seminar on what happened in Iraq, then argued that what's most important is resolving relations with China. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Obama administration promised a "pivot to Asia." (It didn't work out so well.) But Webb's line on China is quite a bit more aggressive than the policy Obama and Clinton, as secretary of state, pursued. —David Graham

9:33 p.m.: I can't help but notice that Bernie Sanders, unlike Martin O'Malley, avoided a direct critique of Hillary Clinton on her Iraq War vote. Indeed, he appears to be avoiding attacking her directly throughout the debate so far, even when given opportunities to do so. —Matt Ford

9:33 p.m.: Hillary Clinton argues that U.S. planes should fly over Syria to get leverage over Russia! Note to the U.S. Air Force: you won't be risking your lives to protect the U.S. homeland, but to help Hillary Clinton get leverage in a murky game of geopolitics that she's proven bad at before. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:32 p.m.: Clinton making her bid to be the grown-up in the room, decrying the "loose talk" of her rivals. —Molly Ball

9:32 p.m.: Jim Webb reminds Anderson Cooper he’s still present. “I’ve been standing over here for about 10 minutes,” he said, seemingly annoyed. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:31 p.m.: YEOW. "I was very pleased when Governor O'Malley endorsed me in 2008," Clinton says. "I consider him a friend." —Molly Ball

9:31 p.m.: By pointing out that many legislators were "railroaded" into backing the Iraq war, Martin O'Malley is making an eloquent case here for Lincoln Chafee's judgment in opposing it. (More eloquent than Chafee, I might add.) David Graham

9:29 p.m.: When would a President Sanders use force? He points out that he supported military action in Kosovo and Afghanistan. —Molly Ball

9:29 p.m.: This is an opportune time for Democrats to reflect on the consequences of President Obama's appointments: In filling his foreign-policy team with Iraq War hawks like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, he empowered the very faction of Democrats that supported a war he called "stupid" and made it more likely that a future Democratic president will again enter into a stupid war of choice. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:28 p.m.:Another sharp Sanders line about the Iraq war: "I heard the same evidence from President Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.” —David Graham

9:26 p.m.: Interesting play by Hillary to respond to the Iraq criticism: She points out that after debating this issue extensively with Obama in 2008, "He asked me to be his secretary of state. He valued my judgment." —Molly Ball

9:25 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee is right—Sanders calling the Iraq war the worst foreign-policy decision in American history is a big deal, and a pretty strong gauntlet thrown at Clinton. —David Graham

9:25 p.m.: Anderson Cooper asked Clinton if she’s underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin, until moving to Sanders with the same question. This is the first we’re hearing on foreign policy from the candidates. None of them mentioned it in their opening remarks.—Priscilla Alvarez

9:24 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee apparently subscribes to the naive belief that there is a gun-control bill the NRA would agree to if you just called them in for a nice meeting. I know some gun-control activists who would be mighty skeptical of that idea. —Molly Ball

9:22 p.m.: Here's another Hillary Clinton quote from 2008 that would seem to cut against criticizing a politician from a state like Vermont on gun control: "What I favor is what works in New York. You know, we have a set of rules in New York City and we have a totally different set of rules in the rest of the state. What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana. So, for the federal government to be having any kind of, you know, blanket rules that they’re going to try to impose, I think doesn’t make sense.” —Conor Friedersdorf

9:22 p.m.: Chafee calling for Democrats to bring NRA President Wayne LaPierre in to help pass gun control is maybe the last thing I expected to see tonight. —David Graham

9:21 p.m.: Sanders is the target of more attacks than Clinton so far. But he walked right into a bit of a zinger from O'Malley, when he told the former Maryland governor, "You have not been in the United States Congress," during their heated exchange on guns. "And that's a healthy thing," O'Malley replied, drawing a hearty laugh from Clinton. —Russell Berman

9:20 p.m.: "The views in rural states on gun control are different from urban states, whether we like it or not." How odd that Bernie Sanders is the person on this stage trying to convince Democrats to hew to the center for electability reasons. —Molly Ball

9:19 p.m.:The debate here between O'Malley and Clinton, on the one hand, and Sanders, on the other, is an interesting microcosm of the urban-rural divide in the Democratic Party. —David Graham

9:19 p.m.: Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign: "You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl. Some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter." The politics are quite different this cycle. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:18 p.m.: So far, Clinton has—against most pundits' predictions—gone after Sanders repeatedly. She leapt in to follow up on his critique of capitalism, saying that the U.S. needs to fix it, and she jumped to criticize him as too soft on gun control as well. —David Graham

9:17 p.m.: Clinton gets right to it when asked if Sanders is tough enough on guns. "No. Not at all," she replied. —Russell Berman

9:16 p.m.: Sanders is on the defensive on his mixed record on gun control. He says of his vote for a bill to shield gun manufacturers from liability, "that was a large and complicated bill.” —Molly Ball

9:16 p.m.: Hillary opens fire on Bernie Sanders over gun control. It’s an issue Sanders has generally been reluctant to address, and one on which both his record and rhetoric are at odds with the views of the portion of the party that otherwise supports him. He emphasizes his need to work out practical compromises in his rural state, but the attack hits home. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:13 p.m.: Martin O'Malley is going to have a damned hard time persuading Democratic voters that the Baltimore police department he presided over should be a credit to his candidacy. A strong case can be made that it was the most abusive police department in the nation. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:11 p.m.: O'Malley, pressed on his record in Baltimore, is basically touting his tenure as mayor as tough on crime—a strange look for this era of Democratic politics. —David Graham

9:10 p.m.: Hillary Clinton has been tacking left on policies for the last several months, but she was surprisingly aggressive in jumping in as a defender of capitalism after Sanders defended  Democratic socialism. "We have to save capitalism from itself," Clinton said, before extolling the entrepreneurial spirit of America. —Russell Berman

9:09 p.m.: A question for Lincoln Chafee! Awww. Accused of changing his political identity, he replies, "You're looking at a block of granite when it comes to the issues.” —Molly Ball

9:08 p.m.: You've got to love Sanders, at a debate literally in a casino, deriding the "casino capitalist system.”—David Graham

9:07 p.m.: The most unexpected line of the night has got to be Anderson Cooper telling Bernie Sanders: "You honeymooned in the Soviet Union." —Conor Friedersdorf

9:07 p.m.: Sanders is citing Scandinavian countries as models for the U.S. That's a risky maneuver, as I noted this summer, but maybe not as risky as it once was. —David Graham

9:04 p.m.: Sanders: "We're going to win because we're going to explain what democratic socialism is." Gallup found that more Americans would vote for a gay, atheist, or Muslim president than a socialist.—Molly Ball

9:03 p.m.: “Are you a moderate, or are you a progressive?” asks Anderson Cooper. “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” Hillary replies. The crowd cheers. But that may not be an applause line in the general election. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:02 p.m.: Not surprisingly, the first question for Hillary is on her flip-flop on TPP. In a refrain familiar to every candidate who's ever changed a position, she insists she was exposed to new information that changed her perspective. —Molly Ball

9:01 p.m.: Anderson Cooper starts with the "Defend Yourself" round of questioning, which Republicans had to endure in their first two debates. —Russell Berman

9:00 p.m.: Hillary Clinton continues her effort to make Charlotte Mezvinsky the most famous granddaughter in America. She has used Chelsea’s one-year-old daughter as a framing device for her entire candidacy. —Russell Berman

8:59 p.m.: You can’t underestimate how much Clinton benefits from being up on stage with two deeply nervous candidates (Chafee and Webb) and talking right after Sanders, who's perpetually shouty. Of course she seems relatable and lifelike next to them! —David Graham

8:58 p.m.: Bernie Sanders gave the same emphasis and volume to every word that he spoke. I was thrown off by that! —Conor Friedersdorf

8:58 p.m.: Feeling the Bern yet? Bernie Sanders delivered an impassioned speech, touching on climate change, the campaign-finance system, and incarceration. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:57 p.m.: One common theme in these opening statements is an emphasis on moral rectitude. None of the candidates has made even an indirect reference to any of the controversies dogging Hillary Clinton, but they’re not above drawing implicit contrasts with the frontrunner. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:55 p.m.: Martin O'Malley suggests that college should be a "debt-free option" for every family. That would be an extremely regressive subsidy. College costs are out of control. Student debt is a problem. But the right amount of borrowing for higher education is not zero. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:55 p.m.: Here's how much of a Democrat O'Malley is: His parents met working at the DNC in DC. —Molly Ball

8:53 p.m.: O'Malley notes that he's a "lifelong Democrat"—a swipe at Webb, a former Republican; Chafee, a former Republican; Sanders, who's not a registered Democrat; and maybe even Clinton, who was a youthful Barry Goldwater backer in high school. —David Graham

8:53 p.m.: Thanks, Matt, for enforcing Nevadans' bizarre insistence on pronouncing the state's Spanish name in exaggeratedly Anglo fashion. —Molly Ball

8:52 p.m.: In a fatal blow to his electoral hopes in Nevada,  Lincoln Chafee mispronounces the state's name. Presidential candidates are usually briefed on this, so it's kind of surprising he made the error. The state's residents pronounce it Ne-va-dah, with the middle syllable rhyming with “glad.” Chafee, however, pronounced it Ne-vah-dah, with the middle syllable rhyming with “claw.” —Matt Ford

8:50 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee's opening pitch is based on his experience—as mayor, senator, and governor. That's a little risky, though, because Chafee declined to run for reelection as Rhode Island governor in part due to stunningly low approval rates. —David Graham

8:48 p.m.: Lincoln Chafee goes first, trying to show voters that he measures up against the other candidates, that he’s willing to go the extra kilometer, that gram-for-gram he’s the best bet, that…well, you get the idea. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:47 p.m.: If Tom Hanks entered the race tomorrow could he win the Democratic nomination? If Vegas set the line at 20 to 1 odds I'd take that bet. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:43 p.m.: The only genuine, trained horse farrier on stage tonight at the debate is Lincoln Chafee. —Steve Clemons

8:41 p.m.: Jim Webb in glasses looks strikingly like Alex Trebek. —Molly Ball

8:40 p.m.: I love how melodramatic the voice-over intro for this debate is: "This night in Vegas could change the odds... yet again." —David Graham

8:35 p.m.: GOP frontrunner and future SNL host Donald Trump plans to livetweet tonight's debate, in case you're looking for the best, classiest commentary out there. —Matt Ford

8:34 p.m.: CNN's decision to air a free political commercial for Barack Obama is an interesting choice. Did George W. Bush ever get to do that in 2008? —Conor Friedersdorf

8:33 p.m.: Joe Biden made an appearance, sort of. The vice president made a quick appearance in a taped message by President Obama that aired minutes before the debate. Biden hasn’t announced whether he’ll run for president, but he’s certainly looming over the debate. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:26 p.m.: O'Malley has been perhaps the most aggressive Democrat in criticizing Clinton, and for a candidate barely registering in the polls, he's under a lot of pressure to seize this opportunity for a national audience. But recall that he was one of Clinton's heartiest supporters in 2008, and it will be interesting if she decides to parry his attacks with a reminder of that tonight. —Russell Berman

8:22 p.m.: This Martin O'Malley tweet is truly wonderful:

If you haven't heard by now—and if you're reading this, you've heard—O'Malley plays guitar, as he is at pains to remind people. As for the clothier, it's a Baltimore-based favorite. While invoking it makes it look like product placement, it's also evidence of thriftiness. Well played, governor. —David Graham

Five Democrats take the stage at their first debate in Las Vegas tonight, trying to capture some fraction of the interest and enthusiasm that their Republican rivals have garnered.

The debate promises to be more sober than the GOP contests, but as my colleague Russell Berman writes, it’s an open question whether that will make it more substantive, or just more of a snooze.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the clear frontrunner, will be trying to make the prospect of her nomination seem exciting, and not merely inevitable. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders faces the converse challenge, as he works to convince primary voters thrilled by his rhetoric that he can actually secure the party’s nod. Then there’s former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who will end the evening ahead of where he is just by sharing the stage with his better-known rivals.

Also on stage will be the ciphers of the season: former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and onetime Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. Both have reputations as pugnacious debaters, but it’s not clear what they’re aiming to accomplish, either at the debate or by running for president. Will Chafee seize the chance to champion the metric system? He’s not saying. Jim Webb isn’t tipping his hand, either: “Eisenhower didn’t yap about D-Day in advance,” a spokesman told Time.

The surprise of the Democratic campaign to date has been Sanders, memorably described by my colleague Molly Ball as, “rumpled and scowling, bald pate topped by an entropic nimbus of white hair.” He’s cut a distinctive figure since his days as the socialist mayor of Burlington, and his run has produced tremendous enthusiasm, as he’s taken his indictment of politics as usual to packed crowds across the country. Tonight, he’ll try to bring that message to a broader audience.

Clinton, meanwhile, has been dogged by a series of nagging questions, none of which has derailed her candidacy, but which seem to have taken a cumulative toll. She’ll try to return the focus to the issues, making her case that she’s uniquely well-qualified to deliver the policies that Democratic voters favor.

This is the first of just six scheduled debates, and that small number has produced one of the night’s more bizarre subplots. The Clinton campaign favored limiting the number of contests, and when Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz apparently went along with that preference, other candidates squawked in protest. More recently, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a DNC vice chair, publicly called for more debates. She says she was then disinvited from Tuesday’s debate; Wasserman Schultz essentially accused her of lying about that. The result couldn’t have pleased any of the candidates, spoiling the run-up to their big night with questions about how effectively the Democratic Party is being run.

For more on the candidates, check out our 2016 cheat sheet. And refresh this page throughout the night to keep pace with the proceedings. —Yoni Appelbaum