Which is not to say there was no parry and thrust on issues. But Clinton's mild jabs at Sanders weren't what made it a winning night for her: the real advantage the former secretary of state realized Wednesday night was in her ability to connect with voters as a wife and grandmother, as well as a polished political professional.
"I have never run a negative ad in my life," Sanders said during his turn on the stage with Anderson Cooper, nonetheless carefully drawing specific contrasts with Clinton on his core issues of income inequality and political reform.
"I do not know any progressive who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street," he said
. "That's just not progressive." He also noted, as he has before, that Clinton cast a fateful vote in favor of the Iraq War in 2002 and supported trade deals, including NAFTA and CAFTA, that sent many American jobs overseas.
And Sanders pointed out that he holds a lopsided advantage among younger voters, who favored him over Clinton by an astonishing 70 percentage points in Iowa
"An objective assessment would say there is more excitement in our campaign," he said
Tellingly, Sanders refused to go anywhere near the many ethical issues that have dogged Clinton, from questions about the Clinton Foundation to the ongoing saga of her decision to keep State Department emails on a personal computer server.
But Clinton did not let Sanders criticisms stand, answering point by point, and stealing the show with a more well-rounded presentation.
To the issue of progressive bona fides, she countered that "Sen. Sanders has set himself up to be the gatekeeper on who is the progressive...I'm a progressive that likes to get things done." Sanders has called for sweeping proposals for higher taxes, universal government-paid health insurance and massive spending on infrastructure, which some have called unrealistic in the current political climate. "It's hard to see how any of his policies would ever be achievable," said Clinton.
Clinton's advantage shone when she talked effusively and at length about the joys of watching her granddaughter say some of her first words (including "Grandma!"). And Clinton played to a key strength, the chance to make history by electing the first woman president.
"I'm going to try and break the highest and hardest glass ceiling," she told a town hall participant.
The lesson is clear for Sanders: he has to decide if he wants to win an argument or win the nomination. He can, in some sense, out-point Clinton among progressives by continually promising sweeping change and pointing out her centrist votes and decisions.
But that won't give Sanders the ultimate victory. Clinton's ability to connect with voters and ask them to make history are a heady combination that many voters respond to.
Now that Sanders got his wish -- an agreement by Clinton to hold four additional debates
-- he has to use those opportunities to showcase himself as a leader, not just the spokesman for a cause.