Did Anyone Really Win the Democratic Presidential Debate in Des Moines?

After Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, the three rivals showed their weaknesses along with their strengths.

Nati Harnik / AP

Against the somber backdrop of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, the three contenders for the Democratic nomination gathered in Iowa on Saturday night. The first 30 minutes of the debate were devoted to foreign-policy issues, but not until the focus shifted to domestic questions did the candidates really come alive. And that may be a problem for whichever of these candidates becomes the Democratic nominee.

CBS’s John Dickerson pressed the candidates for answers on ISIS, asking them to explain how they would tackle the group. Their answers, in aggregate, formed a striking contrast to the Republican field. They emphasized that the struggle is against violent radicals, and not with Islam. They stressed the need to enlist regional allies, and insisted that the United States cannot go it alone. And, notably, there were no direct calls for more vigorous action.

If viewers may have hoped to hear clear answers on America’s role in the world, what they received instead were responses that stressed complexity, contingency, and the limits of American influence.

Hillary Clinton offered the most detailed answers, showcasing her experience on the world stage. Several times, Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley challenged her record, which includes support for interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, but neither seemed prepared to press home their attacks. It was Dickerson who most effectively pushed for answers, and underscored her vulnerability on some of these issues.

Sanders, for his part, seemed decidedly uncomfortable discussing foreign policy. Instead of laying out a clear agenda for dealing with ISIS, he defended his attention to climate change, and at one point even tried to change the subject to veterans’ affairs, an issue on which he has substantially more experience.

It wasn’t the debate that any of the candidates had anticipated earlier in the week. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Des Moines riding high in the polls; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders entered the debate trying to recapture momentum; and Martin O’Malley wanted to remind voters that he still exists.

Once the focus turned to domestic policy, though, all three hit their stride. Sanders once more called for a political revolution, and declaring that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.” He defended his call for higher tax rates on the wealthy, citing the top bracket of 90 percent during the Eisenhower administration, to incredulous guffaws. “I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” he quipped. And he talked about breaking up banks with a directness and passion that was notably absent from his discussion of taking on ISIS.

O’Malley was livelier than in recent debates, at one point seizing on a question on immigration to attack “that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.” He clearly benefited from the increased time, and attention, he received with Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee exiting the race. But the stakes for O’Malley were higher than for the other two candidates, as his repeated entreaties for viewers to donate to his campaign suggested. If he needed a breakthrough to keep his struggling campaign alive, Saturday night’s performance seemed unlikely to provide it.

Clinton did not let her rivals rattle her composure. She entered the debate as the frontrunner, and said nothing that seemed likely to change that. She has struggled to replicate the enthusiasm that Sanders summons on the stump, but seems more comfortable than Sanders in debates. It remains her race to lose.

One of the evening’s livelier discussions focused on the minimum wage. The candidates were asked about the economist Alan Krueger's recent New York Times op-ed suggesting that a $15 minimum wage might be too much. Sanders jumped at the chance to make his case for ensuring that workers are fairly compensated for their labor. Clinton, though, sided with Krueger, worrying that a minimum wage above $12 lacked evidence to prove that its benefits would outweigh its potential costs. The whole discussion was markedly different from that of the Republican debate, in which many candidates tripped over themselves in their haste to disavow support for such measures.

Sanders also lambasted Hillary for accepting millions in contributions from Wall Street. Clinton, in turn, cited the fact that most of her donors are women, and said that some Wall Street workers donate because they’re grateful for her post-9/11 advocacy for the area. It’s an answer that may come back to haunt Clinton, and which did little to dissipate the force of Sanders’s attack.

Sanders delivered his case for addressing economic inequality more clearly and more forcefully on Saturday night than in the previous Democratic debate. It’s a message that has resonated with Democratic voters, and they may respond to it again. But the single-minded focus on economic issues that fueled Sanders’s rise was also exposed as a potential liability on a night when foreign-policy issues were foremost in the minds of many viewers.  —Yoni Appelbaum

11:03 pm: Moderators always get jabbed for the questions they don't ask, but it was striking we didn't see any questions about reproductive rights only a day after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear its first major abortion case in eight years. —Matt Ford

11:02 pm: As my colleague Russell Berman noted earlier today, Martin O’Malley needed to prove he was a legitimate threat to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tonight and while several of his lines were well-delivered, it didn’t seem to make a dent. Sanders and O’Malley ganged up on Clinton on a few issues, particularly the donations she’s received from Wall Street. But the focus on foreign policy at the start of the debate worked in Clinton’s favor and set the tone. It’s clear she’ll continue to face questions about her record moving forward, but she also may have solidified her standing as the frontrunner. —Priscilla Alvarez

11:00 pm: To build on what Conor said, I think Hillary's 9/11-Wall Street gaffe might have been the most important moment of the night—but not for the Democratic primaries. Sanders and O'Malley didn't seem eager to wield it against her, but if RNC chairman Reince Priebus is any indication, Republicans sure took notice:

10:58 pm: On the one hand, this debate showcased Hillary's strength as the serious, experienced, commander-in-chief-seeming candidate. On the other, it laid bare how vulnerable she is on national-security issues—she repeatedly struggled with moderator John Dickerson's tough, excellent questions about her foreign-policy record. On the other question of the night, whether her rivals would lay a finger on Clinton, the answer is mixed. Sanders repeatedly declined to take the bait and go after her frontally or on character issues, but his hits on her Wall Street ties and her refusal to endorse a $15 minimum wage will bolster the left's distrust. Going into this debate I thought the headlines out of it would be one of three things: 1) Sanders goes after Clinton, 2) Sanders lets Clinton off the hook again, or 3) Clinton makes some kind of gaffe. I think it was mostly 2. —Molly Ball

10:56 pm: The wild card in this debate was its proximity to the Paris attacks. Many believed this would play to Hillary Clinton's strengths. But in the end I think that it hurt her because the effect was to have a long discussion about her Iraq War vote, which Democratic primary voters mostly dislike. Bernie Sanders, who seemed uninclined to press the point, got an assist from moderator John Dickerson, who forced the candidates to highlight their real differences. Dickerson did a good job on the whole, despite a rough patch where he hounded the candidates on a pointless distinction about how to refer to terrorists. Overall, Bernie Sanders had his best night I've seen, making the case for his brand of economic policy as well as he's able. Will it gain him ground? The major gaffe of the night: Hillary Clinton. Her overall performance was fine, but what was she thinking using 9/11 to defend all the money that she's taken from Wall Street? I expect it will be used to attack her in primaries and in the general if she gets there. One imagines that it was a prepared line, too. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:53 pm: Clinton: The president's job is "to do everything she can do to lift up the people of this country." She ends with a plea for caucus support, to loud cheers. —Molly Ball

10:53 pm: O'Malley's closing statement is yet another pitch for fresh leadership. It's remarkably stock, with no mention of the Paris attacks, which Dickerson cited in leading into the question. Some are saying he had a good night tonight, but I'm not seeing it. —Molly Ball

10:53 pm: As Dickerson notes, the evening wraps up with a question on crisis, which takes on a new meaning in light of the attacks in Paris.— Priscilla Alvares

10:51 pm: O’Malley’s second shameless plug for cash raises the interesting question of whether his campaign may be struggling to pay the bills. Few candidates give up; usually, they drop out when they run out of cash. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:50 pm: Martin O'Malley admirably admits he didn't face any challenges as governor or mayor that equal what a president faces and focuses instead on the skills he honed in those positions. —Matt Ford

10:48 pm: Sanders is asked to explain how he’d handle a crisis, in the shadow of Paris. He gives a lengthy answer about striking a legislative deal. It’s a somewhat bizarre answer for a man who’s actually held executive office—was there nothing in his time as Burlington’s mayor on which he could draw here? —Yoni Appelbaum

10:46 pm: Hillary Clinton says she told Barack Obama that he should order the strike on the Bin Laden compound—and that she didn’t ask her husband for counsel on what the right call might be. Interesting if true! —Conor Friedersdorf

10:41 pm: A fun trend in this year's election: Candidates livetweeting the other parties' primary debates. —Matt Ford

10:40 pm: Again, asked if his plans are realistic, Bernie’s answer is basically, “If I’ve been elected, something weird will have already happened.” —Molly Ball

10:36 pm: Deray Mckesson, one of the most prominent Black Lives Matter activists, offers mixed praise for O'Malley's criminal-justice reform answer:

Matt Ford

10:35 pm: The University of Missouri protests that reached a climax last week get their first mention of the night. Clinton, responding to the question, speaks about the deep sense of alienation felt by youth, particularly youth of color, across the country. —Matt Ford

10:32 pm: The claim that Martin O’Malley successfully navigated the tension between law enforcement and race relations as mayor of Baltimore, as he just suggested, is a strange one to make. Baltimore rivals Ferguson as a city in which the black population has utterly lost faith in the police. And crime in the city has rapidly increased over the past year. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:31 pm: “Well, John, I come from the 60s,” says Hillary. She’s trying to explain how she does “appreciate how young people are standing up and speaking out,” but in trying to prove her connection, she uses a formula that only underscores that she’s now 68. “I come from the 60s,” is probably not the tagline her campaign would prefer to have her using. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:29 pm: After the last debate, in which he said he was "sick and tired" of hearing about Clinton's email, Sanders made some slightly more critical comments in the press about the issue needing to be investigated completely. Given a chance to resolve those two things, he calls it "media fluff," and reiterates: “I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s email. I am still sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s email." It's a good answer for him, pivoting to the "real issues" that are important for the country, but it also symbolizes his refusal to go for the jugular to her face, which has caused some to question his seriousness as a candidate. After the last debate, both Sanders's and Clinton's people cited his line about the emails as their favorite moment of the night. Who did it really benefit?—Molly Ball

10:28 pm: Dickerson asks O’Malley about the supposed “Ferguson effect” that is said to be deterring police from enforcing the law. As our coverage has made clear, there’s not yet any firm evidence out there in support of this idea. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:28 pm: Dickerson asks Clinton if Democrats should worry about another shoe dropping on her emails. “After 11 hours that’s been pretty clear,” she said, alluding to her testimony ahead of House Benghazi committee. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:26 pm: Dickerson inquires how Sanders would work with a "revolution on the other side," namely, the anti-establishment Republicans who toppled John Boehner and catapulted Trump and Ben Carson to the top of the polls. Sanders cites his own supporters' revolution, which isn't really an answer to how Democrats will take back statehouses and Congress. But I’m not sure any Democratic candidate would fare better on this question, and it’s a crucial one for any Democratic presidential hopeful in the immediate future. —Matt Ford

10:26 pm: Did Sanders contradict himself when talking to the Wall Street Journal and suggesting there were real questions to be asked about Clinton’s emails? “I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s emails, I’m still sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s emails,” he quips. And then puts in a rousing plea to refocus on genuinely important issues. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:20 pm: By my count, we've had economists Alan Krueger, Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and now Paul Krugman invoked by the candidates during this debate. —Matt Ford

10:19 pm: Martin O’Malley uses his airtime to put in a plug for donations on his website. And then the network cuts to its own commercials. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:18 pm: Zooming back, there can be no doubt that if elected president, Bernie Sanders would be much tougher on Wall Street than Hillary Clinton. Voters should act accordingly. And the debate should move on. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:18 pm: And to add to that, I don’t know if there’s been a Twitter question that’s a direct response from something that’s been said during the debate. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:17 pm: CBS uses a tweet to challenge Clinton on her implied connection between Wall Street campaign donations and 9/11. Never seen that kind of public interaction in a debate before. This is incredibly well-run by CBS, especially compared to the GOP ones. —Matt Ford

10:15 pm: Baltimore saw its 300th homicide of the year earlier tonight. —Matt Ford

10:15 pm: As they argue about guns, Sanders takes a shot at O’Malley. “I think it’s fair to say that Baltimore is not now one of the safest cities in America,” he tells the city’s former mayor. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:13 pm: Dickerson asks Clinton why criticize Sanders’s gun vote, if Sanders can’t criticize her vote on the Iraq War. She admits her vote was a mistake. When Sanders is asked if it’s a mistake, he stays mum and O’Malley interjects. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:11 pm: Clinton: "Since we last debated in Las Vegas, nearly 3,000 people have been killed by guns." —Matt Ford

10:10 pm: Sanders takes issue with Clinton's claim she'll go after Wall Street players who break the rules. "The business model of the financial industry is fraud." —Bernie Sanders

10:09 pm: I'm thunderstruck that Sanders didn't respond to Clinton's invocation of the 9/11 attacks in her defense of accepting campaign donations and support from Wall Street. Maybe he was as surprised by that argument as I was. —Matt Ford

10:07 pm: Hillary managed to invoke both gender and 9/11 in one answer there, noting that most of her donors are women and that she stood with "downtown Manhattan" after the attacks. —Molly Ball

10:06 pm: Hillary waited quite a while to put out a Wall Street regulation plan, but she did so recently, and she cites it now as proof she would rein in not just big banks but the “shadow banking system.” Bernie says her contention she could take donations from Wall Street and then be tough on them was “not good enough.” —Molly Ball

10:05 pm: Hillary Clinton points to a couple hedge fund managers campaigning against her as proof that she’ll take on Wall Street. So what’s her theory on the other Wall Street players who’ve funneled millions to her personally and politically. Are they dupes? Bernie Sanders makes this very point: “Maybe they’re dumb, but I don’t think so.” Many on Wall Street believe that they could get along perfectly well with Hillary Clinton. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:04 pm: Voters who complain that both parties are the same should look at the minimum-wage discussions. In tonight's debate, the three candidates argued about how much to raise it by. In Tuesday's debate, the Republican candidates roundly opposed any raise whatsoever. Regardless of which side you agree with, it's a sharp divide between them. —Matt Ford

10:03 pm: What does Bernie think of Hillary’s answer on Wall Street? “Not good enough!” he says. And after largely holding his fire on foreign policy, Bernie now turns to an issue over which he’s genuinely willing to fight. “I will break up these banks!” he thunders. And he all but suggests that Hillary has been bought and paid by moneyed interests. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:01 pm: Sanders and O'Malley subscribe to the theory Obama has called “middle-out economics"—a term coined by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer—while Hillary cites the liberal economist Alan Krueger's recent New York Times op-ed worrying that $15 is too much too fast. It's a mark of how far the fight for $15 has come that it's now the standard Democratic position. Just a couple of years ago, Democrats were arguing over whether $10.10 was too much. —Molly Ball

9:59 pm: Dickerson: "We are going to talk about Wall Street. But now we're going to go do a commercial.” —Kathy Gilsinan

9:59 pm: Martin O’Malley seems to think economists who study the minimum wage live on Wall Street. They do not.  Conor Friedersdorf

9:59 pm: Quite the argument there over the $15 minimum wage, which has become a cause celebre for labor and most of the left even as liberal economists worry it would lead to an economic slowdown.  Molly Ball

9:57 pm: Bernie Sanders makes as strong a pitch for a “living wage” as you’ll hear: “It is not a radical idea to say that someone working 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty.” But many others who share that end believe that a different means to it, the Earned Income Tax Credit, helps workers without raising unemployment. Conor Friedersdorf

9:57 pm: All three candidates defend the idea of a higher minimum wage, but only Hillary seems actually to have read the Alan Krueger piece in question, and she rushes to say it stipulates that raising it beyond $12 an hour is without precedent. She suggests that number as a floor. And here’s a real policy difference, after an hour of generalities. The other two candidates seem on board with $15 an hour. CBS cuts to commercials, and there’s a WalMart ad touting its efforts to raise the wages of workers, and making precisely the same points as the candidates. Even as they argue over specifics, this is an issue the Democrats are presently winning. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:53 pm: Very strong answer by O'Malley on whether to "compromise" on immigration by securing the border first. He makes a rousing call for a path to citizenship. —Molly Ball

9:52 pm: Clinton, a former lawyer, says her reading of the law and the Constitution supports Obama's executive actions on immigration. We'll find out over the next few months whether five justices on the Supreme Court agree. —Matt Ford

9:51 pm: “That immigrant-bashing carnival barker, Donald Trump,” a Martin O’Malley line, seems ripe for an Auto Tune the News treatment. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:50 pm: O’Malley uses an immigration question to take a whack at “that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.” Biggest applause line of the night so far. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:48 pm: Between Sanders' praise of the Eisenhower-era tax code tonight and Donald Trump's endorsement of Operation Wetback, a mass-deportation program targeting Hispanics in the 1950s, in the Tuesday GOP debate, it's been quite a week for the 34th president's policies. —Matt Ford

9:45 pm: Bernie Sanders declares that the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off America everyday. And this suggests a potential alliance: Sanders should choose a theme song from the catalogue of the late 90s/early aughts ska band The Pharmaceutical Bandits. I give you their hit, “I Don’t Care.” —Conor Friedersdorf

9:44 pm: Clinton says she would build on the Affordable Care Act and improve on it, including the "cost issues.” —Molly Ball

9:43 pm: Donald Trump has been invoking Ike recently too. If only someone would warn against the rise of the military industrial complex… —Conor Friedersdorf

9:42 pm: How high would Bernie’s top tax bracket go? “We haven’t come up with an exact number yet, but it won’t be as high as the top number under Dwight D. Eisenhower which was 90%.” Nancy Cordes abandons her composure and laughs out loud. Perhaps a reminder that few network newscasters share the economic interests of most of their viewers. Sanders, though, wins back the crowd by joking: “I'm not that much a socialist compared to Eisenhower.” —Yoni Appelbaum

9:39 pm: The first question, for Clinton, is who would pay for all the programs she's proposing. "Well, first of all, it isn't the middle class." Looks like someone went to politician school. —Molly Ball

9:38 pm:  After a little more than a half  hour of foreign policy questioning, the debate shifts to the economy and middle class.—Priscilla Alvarez

9:37 pm: As the debate shifts from foreign policy to economics, it seems clear that none of the candidates has really set themselves apart. All seem to agree the world is a dangerous place that will require care and skill to successfully navigate. But none has managed to articulate tonight a clear or coherent vision for just how they’d do that. Sanders kept trying to turn back to domestic issues; O’Malley struggled to offer specifics; and Clinton spent most of her time trying to impress the crowd with her mastery of specifics. It’s hard to believe many viewers tuning in after a day of coverage of the Paris attacks are going to find these answers compelling. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:32 pm: Hillary Clinton declares that the 2001 AUMF covers a war against ISIS, then also says that the fight must go through Congress. That suggests ambiguity in her position. In fact, there is no question that she would continue to wage war against ISIS without Congressional authorization if elected––wrongly in the view of someone like me who believes the 2001 AUMF does not apply, but that is doubtless the course she will take in the absence of Congressional permission. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:31 pm: Dickerson's focus on terminological questions might seem odd to a Democratic audience, but conservatives frequently criticize the Obama administration for not using terms like "radical Islam" or "terrorist attacks" when describing al-Qaeda or ISIS. They'll likely do the same after all three candidates' evasions tonight. —Matt Ford

9:31 pm: On the other hand, I can't help but applaud the efforts to pivot from "war with a concept" to "war with actual human combatants.” —Kathy Gilsinan

9:30 pm: O'Malley: "Radical jihadis, that's to call it what it is." Republicans are perhaps unduly preoccupied with the refusal to say "radical Islam," but the Democrats' contortions to avoid that phrase are notable. —Molly Ball

9:29 pm: Hillary Clinton is absolutely right that it is worse than useless for U.S. presidential candidates to talk about being at war with “radical Islam,” and it’s a shame that John Dickerson ripped a sensible quote about understanding one’s adversaries from context as if Clinton believes anything other than an attack like Paris is an abject horror. I subtract one of the good moderator points I assigned him earlier! —Conor Friedersdorf

9:27 pm: Clinton is asked whether she believes we're at war with "radical Islam." She dodges, says we're not at war with Islam—and is immediately called on it by Dickerson. "We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism." —Molly Ball

9:26 pm: John Dickerson, the CBS moderator, has politely but firmly pressed candidates for clear and specific answers. It’s a striking contrast to the moderation of recent GOP debates. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:25 pm: Sanders is itching to get back to domestic issues, adding that the U.S. should not “turn our backs” on veterans in a line of responses on foreign policy. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:24 pm: O'Malley is asked if the stakes are too high to elevate a governor with no foreign-policy experience to the presidency. His answer is not particularly coherent—he says America has what it takes to tackle these challenges. —Molly Ball

9:22 pm: And a question relevant as politicians consider what to do about ISIS now: Do we have a plan for the day after? —Kathy Gilsinan

9:22 pm: This is rare: John Dickerson asks Clinton an important question about her role in championing the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in 2011 and links it to the Iraq War. Most discussions of Libya usually center on the Benghazi attacks, obfuscating any debate about the war there and the chaos that followed it. —Molly Ball

9:21 pm: “Libya is now a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess,” says O’Malley. It’s a remarkable litany for candidates vying to succeed a two-term incumbent who remains popular in his own party; a suggestion that the last eight years have not been a success. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:20 pm: Another excellent question from Dickerson: If you learned so much from Iraq, how did Libya go so wrong? —Molly Ball

9:18 pm: John Dickerson is pleading with Bernie Sanders to articule differences he has with Hillary Clinton that he earnestly holds but is awfully reticent to bring out himself. Good moderating. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:18 pm: Sanders says he believes invading other countries always has unintended consequences. "On this issue I am a little more conservative than the secretary. I am not a big fan of regime change." —Molly Ball

9:16 pm: Bernie Sanders points out that the Iraq War led to the rise of ISIS. He calls the Iraq War vote one of the most consequential blunders in the history of the United States. But unlike Barack Obama 8 years ago, he declines to directly criticize his opponent for favoring that war. Why? —Conor Friedersdorf

9:15 pm: Sanders jumps on Clinton’s support for the Iraq War, calling it the “worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States." —Priscilla Alvarez

9:13 pm: Sanders is asked whether his previous claim that climate change was the greatest global threat still holds. He says climate is related to the growth of terrorism. And he gets in a mention of his opposition to the war in Iraq—a clear point of contrast with Clinton. —Molly Ball

9:12 pm: Clinton calls for a strong American role, but Dickerson smartly follows up to note that she didn't answer his question: Did Obama underestimate this threat? —Molly Ball

9:11 pm: Good question from Dickerson about whether the Obama administration, including Clinton, failed to deal effectively with ISIS. —Molly Ball

9:11 pm: We abided by the agreement set by George W. Bush to leave Iraq, says Hillary, and then Nouri al-Maliki squandered our gains. That’s an odd way to frame the problem for a secretary of state who served under a president who placed enormous emphasis on rapid withdrawal. And not, of course, because he felt bound by agreements Bush had struck; it was something on which he campaigned. Is it, in effect, an effort to blame not just Bush, but also Obama? —Yoni Appelbaum

9:09 pm: Hillary Clinton’s first answer underscores the degree to which, like George W. Bush, she would likely be a foreign-policy president—that is to say, one who would compromise on the domestic agenda she would perhaps most like in order to have more of her way in the realm of foreign affairs. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:08 pm: O'Malley says this "new sort of threat" requires a new, fresh kind of leadership. But he's not particularly specific about what that might be. —Molly Ball

9:07 pm: “This is the new face of conflict and warfare,” says Martin O’Malley, adding this is the “new sort of challenge.” —Priscilla Alvarez

9:05 pm: Sanders begins with a short statement about ISIS, then segues clearly to his normal spiel about income inequality. —Molly Ball

9:04 pm: It sounds as if Sanders has hardly altered his opening statement, maintaining his focus on inequality, and promising to retake government for ordinary people. “What my campaign is about is a political revolution,” Sanders says. Clinton, by contrast, stresses that voters will be choosing a commander in chief, and talks almost exclusively about foreign policy. “All of the other issues you want to deal with depend on us being secure and strong.” There’s the contrast between the two, in a nutshell. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:59 pm: The conventional wisdom is that a debate in the shadow of a terrorist attack helps Hillary Clinton. Were Bernie Sanders inclined to counter aggressively, he has an opening. He could plausibly, and I think accurately, state: “The Iraq War gave rise to ISIS. The Libya War gave them more space to operate. Hillary Clinton supported both. And for that reason, I believe that my foreign-policy judgment has proved far better than hers. Past misjudgments on her part made the world less safe.” But Sanders is most comfortable attacking on domestic policy, and has not been inclined to attack the Democratic frontrunner in any pointed way. How he handles the Syria question tonight will tell us a lot about what he is willing to do––or not willing to do—to contest the nomination. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:58 pm: CBS wraps up its live coverage of the Paris attacks just before the debate. Whatever formal introduction the network has carefully pieced together, it’s this news which will ultimately serve as the backdrop. “The debate you’ve tuned into see tonight is a symbol of the freedom we all cherish,” John Dickerson says, introducing the debate. And he asks the audience to join him in observing a moment of silence. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:57 pm: There are at least two dozen American communities that take their name from the French capital, including Paris, Iowa—about 160 miles up the road from Des Moines, in Linn County. It’s a reminder of the close ties that have long bound the two republics together. —Yoni Appelbaum

When Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley take the debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night, all thoughts will be 4,400 miles away in Paris.

The cluster of horrifying attacks in the French capital on Friday night quickly moved to the center of the presidential race, even as the death toll climbed, and police raids spread beyond France to Belgium.

Republican candidates seized on the attacks to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy, as my colleague Matt Ford reports, framing them as the latest episode in a clash of civilizations, and questioning plans to absorb Syrian refugees.

The Democratic candidates have, so far, steered clear of these sorts of policy questions, choosing instead to stress their horror at the attacks and to express their solidarity with the victims. “Even in this darkest night, Paris remains the City of Light,” wrote Hillary Clinton. “We are all horrified by the cowardly attacks against innocent civilians in Paris,” said Bernie Sanders. “We stand with President Obama in condemning this assault on our common humanity,” said Martin O’Malley. “And we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of France—liberté, égalité, and fraternité.”

On Saturday night, though, they are expected to be pressed for specifics, and will have to convince Iowa voters that they would be well-suited to handle such crises from the Oval Office. CBS reportedly sought to shift the focus of Saturday night’s debate to foreign policy, raising the ire of the Sanders campaign. Mark Longabaugh, a strategist for Sanders, lit into officials at CBS, even as O’Malley and Clinton staffers offered their assent, Yahoo News reported. And the Sanders campaign later claimed it prevailed on most points.

Sanders’s early success on the campaign trail was fueled by his relentless attention to economic issues, but as Russell Berman reports, Clinton has lately reclaimed momentum and is riding high in the polls. The debate offers Sanders a chance to recapture some of the enthusiasm that made him Clinton’s most significant challenger, but that may prove harder if domestic issues are relegated to a secondary role. A focus group held Friday night with 31 undecided Iowa Democrats found that 26 of them considered Clinton to be the stronger commander in chief.

The stage will also be considerably less crowded then at the last debate. The candidates don’t have Lincoln Chafee to kick around anymore. After his hapless performance at the first debate, the former Rhode Island governor withdrew from the race. The accomplished farrier told Molly Ball that he prefers the company of horses to that of people, so perhaps he’s moved on to greener pastures. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb has also exited the race, as he contemplates mounting an independent bid.

You can find out more about all these candidates by using our 2016 Cheat Sheet, and track their rises and falls in our interactive graphic charting the frequency of their media mentions. And follow along with us tonight, as we liveblog the debate. —Yoni Appelbaum