For the Americans not on the road ahead of the holidays or watching NFL football, Hillary Clinton
, Bernie Sanders
and Martin O'Malley
provided the entertainment, engaging in a substantive if somewhat dry policy forum.
But the candidates answered some big questions and offered a glimpse of what's to come as this 2016 race
hits the stretch run.
The harshest back-and-forth of the Democratic primary contest ended with a whimper, just minutes into the debate.
But detente was no given. In the runup to the debate, staffers from both campaigns had sniped and griped at each other over the revelation that Sanders aides had improperly accessed Clinton's voter database
. Sanders fired his digital director when the story went public, but the DNC stoked the flames -- helped along by some hot language from the Clinton campaign -- by banning the Sanders campaign from seeing their own information.
But that tough talk over the last couple of days was mostly absent during Sanders' and Clinton's cordial on-stage exchange.
"I don't think the American people are all that interested in this," Clinton said, channeling the senator's own declaration in a previous debate about moving on from her "damn emails."
Donald Trump gets a beating, but did Clinton go too far?
As expected, everyone had a go at the Republican front-runner
. O'Malley called Trump a "fascist" about five minutes into the show and Sanders dismissed his message as demagoguery aimed at the economically distressed.
Clinton weighed in, too.
"He is becoming ISIS's best recruiter," she said. "They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump
insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists."
While the first line is familiar -- many have suggested Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric could or will be used by terror groups
to boost recruiting -- there is no evidence so far that the real estate developer has been shown in ISIS videos as a marketing tool, as CNN's Reality Check team
A sneak peek at Clinton's general election strategy
She still has a nomination to win, but Clinton offered a few instructive lines on what her general election campaign might look like.
The front-runner began the evening with a wide-ranging broadside, telling the partisan audience, "We have to prevent the Republicans from rolling back the progress that we've made."
"They would repeal the Affordable Care Act,
not improve it," she said. "They would give more tax breaks to the super-wealthy and corporations, not to the middle class. And they would, despite all their tough talk about terrorism, continue to let people who are on the no-fly list buy guns."
Tax hikes on the middle-class, Clinton said, were "off the table," while the former senator from New York was careful to play nice with Wall Street and big business.
"Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?" ABC moderator David Muir asked. "Everbody should," Clinton replied to laughs from the audience. (Sanders, by contrast, said CEOs "ain't going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.")
Clinton dismissed some of the troubles facing Obamacare as "glitches," doubling down on her support for the President's controversial health care reform.
Clinton also offered a quick glimpse at how she might manage questions about her 2011 decision to support regime change in Libya. Challenged by Sanders on her policy there, the former secretary of state seemed to accuse him of playing Monday morning quarterback.
"With all due respect," Clinton said, "you voted for regime change with respect to Libya."
It's a line she could just as easily use in a debate with Marco Rubio
, who also supported "military action"
against the Gadhafi regime.
Progressive politics might be the real Democratic winner in 2016
Liberals might not love all of the answers, but a look back at the questions makes a convincing case that progressives are gaining new power in the Democratic Party's larger debate.
College cost and debt,
criminal justice reform, and the relationship between police and communities of color
are no longer throw-ins — each candidate has gone to considerable length in addressing the related concerns, something not seen even eight years ago, when Clinton and Obama were jockeying for the nomination.
No matter who prevails in this contest, the discussion has drifted left — and that's good news for progressives pining for a seat at the table, although less clear-cut for how they will fare in the general election campaign.
Clinton's late -- but right on time
"May the force be with you!" Clinton said at the end of her closing statement Saturday night. But there was another, mysterious force at play about an hour earlier.
After a commercial break, ABC returned to a stage missing one very important fixture: Hillary Clinton. The candidate was about 30 seconds late getting back to her lectern, arriving as Muir began asking a question despite her absence.
Upon re-entering the stage, Clinton offered a droll, "Sorry..."
She seemed, much to the delight of supporters miffed that show went on without her, to be anything but that.