At Democratic town hall, candidates take on Donald Trump

Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Trump invoked repeatedly in Democratic Town Hall. Sanders called him 'pathological liar;' Clinton said he plays to fear
  • He says Sanders deflected questions on how his programs would affect middle class; Clinton faced tough question on death penalty

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It says a great deal about the state of the 2016 presidential race that, during Sunday night's Democratic town hall from Ohio State University in Columbus, Donald Trump's name came up over and over. He was the subject of the first questions put to both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by the moderators and was mentioned by audience members as well.

And with portions of the debate focusing on Trump, one key question went unasked of the two candidates on stage: why should primary voters choose you, and not your Democratic opponent? Judging from the race so far, neither Sanders nor Clinton has conclusively answered this question.
    Yet just because the two have pledged to avoid personal attacks -- and mostly kept that promise -- it doesn't mean they should shy away from highlighting their ideological differences at every opportunity.
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    To his credit, Sanders called out Trump for encouraging and inciting violence, calling Trump "a pathological liar." Sanders earned the laugh of the night when, in answering an audience member's question about his plans on trade, he mentioned that, "No one is talking about building a wall around the United States."
    Apparently cued by chuckling in the audience, he quickly added, "Oh, I beg your pardon, there is one guy who is talking about building a wall. Let me rephrase it, no rational person is talking about building a wall."
    He also reminded viewers that Trump's association with the "birther" movement was an attempt to delegitimize our first African-American president -- a good point to make on an evening that focused on issues of importance to the black community.
    Sanders generally came across as prepared and amiable (yes, he faced that same old question about how he would pay for his free public college programs). Yet to a certain extent he skated by: he did not receive one question about foreign policy, an area outside his comfort zone.
    For better or worse (depending on your view of him), Sanders is slowly evolving into a more traditional candidate. We saw this in the way he dodged a few specific questions entirely. When asked about how his plans for more government programs would affect middle class people, he pivoted to his familiar talking points about the need for Wall Street to pay its fair share. He's right, but the question was about the burden that would fall on regular folks.
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    Similarly, Misty Jordan from Radio One asked a terrific question about how a President Sanders might move his progressive agenda forward without a change in congressional power. In response, Sanders emphasized that he was attracting large numbers of new voters and that people needed to tell Congress to represent all Americans, not just the rich. Both of these statements are correct -- but Sanders did not answer the actual question.
    Sanders was gracious when asked about his favorite Republican lawmaker. He demurred on this response, explaining to moderator Jake Tapper that any real answer would likely be used against whomever he named. In allowing that he was good friends with Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma -- whom he took care to describe as "one of the most conservative members of the Senate" -- Sanders showed thoughtfulness as well as more of his human side.
    Missed opportunity: The moderators did not ask Sanders about Clinton's recent endorsements by major Illinois and Ohio newspapers.
    When it was her turn, Hillary Clinton seemed mostly relaxed and comfortable with the town hall format. She denounced Trump for "trafficking in hate and fear" and "playing to our worst instincts," and referred to his ideology as "political arson." She seemed to field questions of a wider variety than Sanders, with issues ranging from the local (fracking) to the national (mass incarceration).
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    The moment of the evening came when Clinton was asked about her support for the death penalty. The question came from Ricky Jackson, who spent 39 years in prison and was on death row before being exonerated. Face to face with Jackson, Clinton appeared off her game and at a rare loss for words. She managed to state that she wanted to keep the death penalty "in reserve" for crimes like terrorism and mass killings.
    When moderator Roland Martin followed up by asking Jackson if he was satisfied by Clinton's answer, he affirmed that he was. Still, Clinton's response ignored the reality that the death penalty is not reserved only for terrorism and mass killings. Her answer certainly did not sound like the progressive voice she claims to be -- and she was awfully lucky that Jackson did not answer "no" to Martin on national TV.
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    On the positive side, Clinton bluntly acknowledged the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. When asked to name three specific ways in which she could help stop Trump (a question Sanders faced too), she answered it well. She reminded people that she is the only candidate to have received more votes than Trump, that she is well-tested on the political battlefield, and that she is uniquely qualified as a former secretary of state to make the case for a president with sound and serious judgment. Home run.
    Missed opportunity: Clinton was not asked about praising Ronald and Nancy Reagan for their (supposed) HIV/AIDS advocacy -- comments she later retracted.