Debate coach: Hillary Clinton, a woman among boys

Story highlights

  • Debate coach: Bernie Sanders started out strong, but got tripped up on red flag words
  • Hillary Clinton was a triple debate threat: Likeable, smart and energetic

Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won a national championship for the last three years, and he's been recognized twice as the national debate coach of the year. See his Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Most candidates onstage at Tuesday night's Democratic debate were largely unknown to much of the country. Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. For many, that's a "who's who" list. Seriously, I kept saying "who's who?" as I watched. Of them, Sanders may be more well known, but not by much.

The others? I've never heard them speak, in any length or detail, nor do I know much about them or their policies.
Todd Graham
And here's the thing: We don't really know Hillary Clinton either. Yes, we know her name and the public jobs she's held, and we've heard her speak more than the others. But recently, it's usually when she's getting grilled by Congress or a news reporter about emails. In many ways on Tuesday night Clinton was making a first impression for much of the country as well.
    We know know that it's hard to change first impressions. And this debate lineup delivered some strong ones.
    If I had to evaluate them as debaters, I'd identify four categories: Strong starters, strong finishers, weak sauce and a woman among boys.

    Strong starters

    Sanders fits in here. He had a great opening, and he was generally likeable ... at least until the revolution came for me. More on that later. But at the beginning, I could easily see why he was doing well in the polls and resonating with young people disenchanted with establishment politics: He's sincere and honest in his beliefs.
    But Sanders' strong start was derailed by his weakness -- or some might say, too nuanced stance for a Democratic audience anyway -- on gun control. Plus, he took a hit on "negativity scale" when he had to answer for his socialism. His go-to answer was to compare his ideas for the United States with Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
    I can't even find Vermont on a map, senator. Referencing the Nordic countries doesn't help you much. He needed much more explanation here.
    Studying rhetoric I've learned about red flag words, and some language choices can make a candidate unelectable. Socialism is, unfortunately for Sanders, probably one of them. Even though Sanders attempted to define his brand of democratic socialism at the beginning of the debate, he was tripped up by his repeated use, at the end of the debate, by his other red flag word: Revolution.
    When we think of "revolution," we think of, well, Mao Zedong and, well, socialism. Both in a scary red way, not a cuddly baby blue way.

    Strong finishers

    O'Malley was shaky at the beginning. Both at the beginning of the debate and during almost every answer. He has a soft, calm presence that I took -- I can't have been the only one -- for meek, mild and timid; not great in a debate. However, he gained momentum as he spoke.
    O'Malley was energetic and personable by the end of almost every answer. He also pointed out his accomplishments as governor at just the right times in the debate, which made him seem electable. And he had a great closing.

    Weak sauce

    Chafee's big push, both opening and closing, was that he's consistent and he is "scandal" free. Seriously. Not going to move the needle with that one, governor. Plus, he had to say, twice -- due to an interruption and not answering the question -- that he's like a block of granite. But I don't think granite needs to repeat itself to be heard.
    As for Webb? These are the notes I wrote while watching him during the debate:
    "Who's the angry guy on the stage?"
    "This dude must hate pillow pets."
    "Webb is a Democrat? Seriously?"
    Additionally, his answer on affirmative action was incoherent. That and his positions on gun control and energy made him appear -- both physically and policy-wise -- out of place as a debater. His other problem was repeated complaining about not getting enough air time. It was John McEnroe whining at it's best (which is bad, btw).
    Webb closed by saying that, "It's been a pleasure to be with you tonight." Really? Cuz you were terrifying me.

    A woman among boys

    Hillary Clinton was solid from start to finish. She was confident, her attitude pleasant and likeable, her energy high and she appeared almost youthful. She actually seemed to enjoy the debate. And that's with the moderators going after her at all opportunities. But rather than complain that she was being unfairly "picked on" like another famous frontrunner, Clinton answered the questions with ease. She was a triple debate threat: Likeable. Smart. Energetic.
    As for specific strategy, Clinton co-opted most of her opponent's best arguments, so even when they made good points, she was able to basically say, "I'm for that too." Sanders was best on climate change and Black Lives matter, but Clinton simply agreed with him. It's difficult to disrupt the frontrunner when you can't differentiate yourself from her, and Clinton took advantage of this fact.
    Possible attacks were swatted away with ease. Flip flopper? Clinton repeated she was consistent on principles. She dislikes capitalism? Nope, Clinton says she can save it from itself with policy corrections and defended the concept of capitalism as what built this great country by assisting small businesses and the middle class.
    Her support of Iraq and her judgment? She reminded us that those issues came up eight years ago in the debates, and her opponent at the time thought her judgment sound enough to make her the secretary of state.
    Plus, she continued to remind us she's someone who can get things done. Hunting down the Chinese for a climate deal was terrific storytelling. And Clinton solidified her base by importantly noting her difference from the Republican candidates on immigration and a woman's right to chose. (That and throwing in that she'd be the first woman president a few times throughout the debate.)
    She has weaknesses. The email server won't wipe itself away. But in this debate, her opponents (O'Malley and Sanders) were all too happy to assist Clinton in saying it was a "non-issue." With opponents like these, Clinton's going be impossible to beat in the primary debates.
    This was an easy win. She didn't even break a sweat.