The three Democratic presidential contenders engaged in heated exchanges on health care, gun control, former president Bill Clinton and other issues in Charleston, S.C. on Jan. 17. Here are the key moments from the two-hour debate in three minutes. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

THE BIG IDEA:

The final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses was mostly about Bernie Sanders.

Front-runner Hillary Clinton often sounded like an underdog, as she attacked the Vermont senator for flip-flopping on guns, proposing an unrealistic health-care plan and admitting that he would raise taxes on the middle class. The former secretary of state closely linked herself with Barack Obama, praising the president repeatedly as she appealed to African American voters who could save her campaign if she loses Iowa and New Hampshire. She had a very strong closing argument and dominated when talk turned to foreign policy.

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But the overnight verdict from most in the pundit class is that Sanders prevailed, even if narrowly. Here’s what they are saying:

The Fix’s Chris Cillizza names Sanders the winner and Clinton the loser“More than anything he said, it was the passion and disruption that Sanders oozed from every pore over the two hours that should push Democrats on the fence about the race into his camp. Sanders effectively positioned himself as the anti-status-quo candidate, a very good position to have in this electoral environment.”

Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis tweeted that 27 of 30 undecided voters in a South Carolina focus group he convened picked Sanders as the winner.

Republican focus group maestro Frank Luntz: “Bernie needed an overwhelming victory in tonight’s #DemDebate. At best, he got a narrow one. That won’t be enough to win the Dem nomination.”

Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin gave Sanders a B+, Clinton a B and Martin O’Malley a C+: “Sanders’ improvement manifested itself all night, winning him more good moments overall than both Clinton and O’Malley.”

NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “Sanders shined …. at times overpowering Clinton in a format she typically controls.”

CNN senior producer Teddy Davis: “Sanders notched debate win. 1) Blurring distinction on guns. 2) Putting out a health plan. 3) Being high minded on Bill Clinton.”

A New York Times columnist: 

A Wall Street Journal reporter:

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: “I’m going to call tonight’s debate a win for Sanders. I thought he bested Clinton. … But even if they performed equally well, he stands to benefit, as the candidate who still has less name recognition, from squaring off in front of folks who’ve never seen him before and equaling his opponent.”

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball: “It wasn’t great for Hillary, but I didn’t hear any major gaffes, and Sanders didn’t expand his appeal beyond the base that is already responding to his angry fulminating.”

The Nation, which endorsed Sanders last week, says “Sanders Set the Tone”: “Clinton remains a formidable candidate, but at times it was possible to forget she was even on stage.”

Vox’s Dylan Matthews thinks Clinton’s attacks on Sanders “as insufficiently pro-Obama … generally didn’t sound that persuasive.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd: “Who’s the frontrunner? If you only watched the debate and didn’t read polls, you might assume Sanders.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s 2008 strategist, cried foul when Clinton suggested that Sanders’ support for universal health care would take coverage away from people who have gained it with the Affordable Care Act:

How the mainstream media covered the debate–

Dan Balz, The Post’s chief correspondent, offered a more nuanced take than the talking heads on television: “In the end, it’s not likely the debate changed many minds, but it might have reinforced the supporters each of the candidates has.”

The Post’s main story, by Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker: Clinton “aggressively prosecuted” Sanders on issues from gun control to health care and fealty to President Obama … “as she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch … Clinton put Sanders on the defensive through much of the debate, but a hoarse-voiced Sanders got in numerous digs. … Their exchanges were the most combative and personal of the campaign so far.” (Read The Post’s numerous Fact Checks here. Read the full transcript here.)

New York Times: “Seeking to stabilize her 2016 campaign in the state where her 2008 contest with Barack Obama took its nastiest turn, Mrs. Clinton linked herself to the president again and again. And again. … Over and over Sunday night, Mrs. Clinton turned to Mr. Obama as both sword and shield — sometimes even in the same breath.”

Boston Globe“Clinton, embracing the presidency of Barack Obama, positioned herself … as the candidate most capable of advancing his work on health care, taxes, and foreign policy….”

Associated Press“Their heated rhetoric highlighted the central question fueling the increasingly competitive primary race: Will the Sanders passion beat out the Clinton practicality?”

Wall Street Journal: Clinton put Sanders “on the defensive … over health care and gun control.”

Los Angeles Times: Clinton “seemed intent on bolstering her support among the minority voters whom she will depend on to get her campaign back on track if she loses” Iowa and New Hampshire.

ABC’s Rick KleinThe debate re-framed the race as “a battle pitting the party’s head against its heart.”

How it’s playing in the early states– 

Des Moines Register: “Iowans split on debate winner.”

Charleston Post and Courier leads with the fight over guns: “Clinton accused Sanders of being ‘a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby,’ pointing to the Vermont senator’s votes against the Brady Bill and for what today is known as the ‘Charleston loophole.’ She noted that it was just this weekend that Sanders changed his position to now support efforts that would strip the legal immunity that gun manufacturers have in gun deaths.”

The State (of Columbia, S.C.): “Clinton continued her efforts to paint Sanders as a friend of the gun lobby, a message that could play well in South Carolina, where gun violence shook the state last year.” Around 11:30 p.m., Bill and Hillary dropped by a debate watch party at the Embassy Suites hotel a few blocks away from the debate hall. “I was simply relieved when they asked her what I would do, that she didn’t say, ‘Whatever I tell him to do,’” Bill joked.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

HANDOUT PHOTO: Jason Rezaian landing in Geneva. The plane carrying three of the four Americans freed as part of a deal with Iran made a brief stop in Switzerland, before carrying on to Ramstein Air Base, a US military facility in southwest in Germany. Journalist Jason Rezaian, along with marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, were scheduled to be transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for evaluation, according to reports. (Photo by Brett McGurk)
Jason Rezaian lands in Geneva. The plane carrying three of the four Americans freed as part of a deal with Iran made a brief stop in Switzerland, before continuing on to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (Photo by Brett McGurk)

— Karen DeYoung and Carol Morello have the dramatic backstory on the release of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and three other Americans held in Iran. They describe American officials as always “adamant” that the deal to release Rezaian include his wife, also imprisoned for a time, and mother, who has been in Iran advocating for her son. “But as a Swiss plane sat for hours Saturday on the tarmac at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport … neither his wife nor his visiting mother could be found,” they report. That led to a “tense” tete-a-tete between John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Vienna ceremonies marking the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, which took effect one day before the prisoners’ release.

— Here’s what you need to know from Karen and Carol’s account, drawn from interviews with Post executives, the Rezaian family and senior administration officials:

  • As the nuclear deal negotiations progressed, advocates for Rezaian became concerned that the deal took precedence. “I think we sometimes felt that Jason’s fate was secondary in their priorities,” Post Foreign Editor Doug Jehl said of the administration.
  • Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, Jehl and others met with Denis McDonough, Susan Rice and other administration officials, but got very little information. Despite a firewall between executives working on Rezaian’s release and those covering the story, Baron said: the White House “remained concerned throughout, to the very end, that if they provided us details it would somehow end up being public.”
  • The Post and Rezaian’s brother, Ali, both made their own overtures to the Iranian government – separately and together. The Post hired lawyer Robert M. Kimmitt of WilmerHale to help win his release.
  • Fall 2014 was the first time it was clear Iran wanted a prisoner exchange. The two sides formed negotiating teams on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. Crucially, the Iranian side included the Ministry of Internal Security.
  • A major sticking point, said Kerry, was who the Iranians wanted released. “For a long period of time, this didn’t move because of the people they were asking for,” Kerry said.
  • The pace picked up after the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015. In a meeting with Zarif in November, Kerry thought the deal was done. But it was blocked by an unnamed “different department” in Iran.
  • Post executives learned last week, through reporting, that a deal was close – but confirmation from the White House didn’t come until Saturday.
  • The final hitch came over Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and mother, Mary, who were told by Iranian officials they wouldn’t be allowed to leave with Rezaian. Kerry talked with Zarif, who promised to untangle the situation. Ali eventually reached the women and dispatched them to the airport. But Mary’s name wasn’t on the flight manifest, causing one more delay before they left at 6:58 a.m.

President Obama yesterday defended the nuclear accord with Iran as proof that “smart, patient and disciplined” diplomacy can work, even as his administration announced new sanctions related to Tehran’s ­ballistic-missile program. Some Republican leaders, meanwhile, questioned the “ransom paid for their freedom.” Chris Christie called the exhange “a show of weakness” and Ted Cruz said it sets a bad precedent. Here’s a timeline of Rezaian’s 545-day ordeal.

— Sean Penn defended his sit-down with El Chapo on “60 Minutes.” He called his trip experiential journalism. He also complained that over-demonizing one person, like the drug dealer, distracts from the bigger societal problem of battling addiction. He said he does not fear for his life even though El Chapo’s associates might blame him for the drug lord getting caught. (CBS)

GET SMART FAST:

  1. Three American citizens remain missing in Baghdad and were reportedly kidnapped by gunmen. (Missy Ryan and Erin Cunningham)
  2. Taiwan elected its first female president Saturday. (Simon Denyer)
  3. Federal employees in Oregon face harassment from the extremists who took over the wildlife refuge, and their personal information has been breached by the armed intruders. (Joe Davidson)
  4. President Obama’s budget will propose providing supplemental payments to workers who lose their jobs and take new ones with lower salaries. (Steven Mufson)
  5. The New England Patriots will play the Denver Broncos for the AFC title next weekend, and the Carolina Panthers take on the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC crown. (Rick Maese and Mark Maske)

POWER PLAYERS IN THE NEWS:

  1. Donald Trump suggested in New Hampshire Saturday that he could pick Scott Brown as his running mate, as the former senator said he would halt all immigration — not just Muslims. (James Hohmann)
  2. Michaeleen Crowell, the chief of staff in Sanders’s Senate office, played Hillary during his debate prep. (New York Times profile)
  3. Eric Holder endorsed Clinton, calling her the best presidential candidate to “protect the Obama legacy.” (Vanessa Williams)
  4. American Crossroads, the conservative group linked to Karl Rove, launched a $50,000 digital buy in Iowa to attack Clinton for “hypocrisy” on Wall St. (Watch.
  5. Jeb Bush will roll out an education plan today, which the campaign says is designed to return power to the states, improve transparency and expand choice.
  6. The Supreme Court will review Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction. (Robert Barnes)

SUNDAY SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  1. Trump, on ABC’s “This Week,” called Ted Cruz a “nasty guy,” a “hypocrite” and said “nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.” A Cruz super PAC fired back with a digital campaign featuring past praise from Trump. (Jose A. DelReal)
  2. Marco Rubio told CBS he bought a gun because firearms are “the last line of defense against ISIS.” (Huffington Post)
  3. Sanders said on CNN that he is “very healthy” and will soon release his medical records. (John Wagner)
  4. Paul Ryan called Obama the “most polarizing president” of his lifetime while appearing on Fox News. (Wall Street Journal)

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

— “British politicians won’t ban Trump. Instead, they may invite him for a visit,” by Griff Witte:
More than half a million Brits signed an online petition to ban Trump from visiting Britain after he called to stop Muslims from entering the United States. “For three hours Monday, members of Parliament will have a chance to say whether they agree. But although Trump’s words have been widely condemned in Britain — from across the political spectrum — there is little chance he will be banned. Instead, he may well find himself invited for a visit.” Programming note: C-SPAN will carry the debate live from London at 11:30 a.m. ET. (Watch the livestream here.)

— “Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too,” by Emma Brown: “Sexual assault has become a dominant topic on the nation’s college campuses … But it has largely remained a hidden issue in elementary, middle and high schools … Now there are signs that the problem is receiving more attention, including a sharp rise in the number of federal civil rights complaints alleging that K-12 schools have mishandled reports of sexual violence.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ: 

— ZIGNAL VISUAL: Sanders won big on social media. The Vermont senator continued his Twitter dominance during the debate, and the online enthusiasm advantage over the Democratic front-runner was on full display. Below is a chart from our analytics partners at Zignal Labs showing the total mentions of all three Democratic contenders during the two-hour debate:


By the end of the debate, Sanders received 47 percent of debate-related mentions on Twitter to 42 percent for Clinton and 11 percent for O’Malley.

Mentions of Sanders peaked half way through the debate, driven by this Vine going viral of the senator taking umbrage to a comment Clinton made about him:


The word cloud of all Sanders mentions online shows how quickly this visual entered the bloodstream:

jan18b

As for Clinton, her debate word cloud looked very different:

jan18c

Again, we see negative conservative sites driving the online traffic related to Clinton, illustrating yet again that she galvanizes the right like no other candidate. The most shared stories about Clinton were negative and focused on the speaking fees she accepted from Goldman:

jan18d

Declaring victory, the Sanders campaign cited social media. “Notably, Governor O’Malley gained more Twitter followers Sunday night than Secretary Clinton,” said a press release that went out at 1:25 a.m. “As the debate closed, Sanders was raking in 3.2 contributions per second. Sanders raised one million dollars Sunday from more than 36,000 contributions.”

The most discussed topics on TWITTER:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Foreign Affairs
  3. Energy and Environment
  4. Economy
  5. National Security

The most discussed issues on FACEBOOK:

  1. Wall Street
  2. Medicare
  3. Benghazi
  4. Crime and criminal justice
  5. Climate change

The most engaged states on Facebook:

  1. Vermont
  2. New Hampshire
  3. Oregon
  4. Iowa
  5. Maryland

Internet users were curious about Clinton, but not necessarily in a good way:

–Pictures of the day:

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stood onstage in Charleston ahead of the debate:

Katy Perry reminded Instagram followers know who she’s supporting:

There was a sign war outside the debate venue, but it’s hard to tell the Clinton and Sanders signs apart because they’re all blue.

Lawmakers honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of MLK Day:

The White House wished first lady Michelle Obama a happy birthday:

The National Zoo’s panda cub, Bei Bei, made his public debut:

–Tweets of the day:

Wasserman Schultz attended a church service with Nancy Pelosi and other House colleagues before the debate:

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol blasted Trump by linking him with the Clintons:

Rand Paul live-tweeted quips through last night’s showdown:

Hillary won praise from filmmaker Michael Moore for her closing statement about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.:

Her comment, and Sanders’ call for his resignation, prompted Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to respond:

Obama is scheduled to travel to Detroit on Wednesday to visit the auto show and speak at the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources. He will surely address the fiasco in Flint, but will he go?

Rapper Killer Mike was in the spin room for Sanders after the debate:

Katie Couric joked about Clinton’s comment that her relationship with Vladimir Putin is “interesting”:

–Instagrams of the day:

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) praised his son Harrison for completing his first Pinewood Derby:

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) shared a photo of the Western Wall from a recent trip to Jerusalem:

Finally, the District saw snow:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

Heidi Cruz (Reuters/Chris Keane)

— New York Times, “Heidi Nelson: Making Rain and Sacrifices,” by Steve Eder and Matt Flegenheimer: “Mrs. Cruz quit her high-powered post in Washington, took a job in finance and moved to Texas, an unfamiliar place, to be closer to Mr. Cruz, then the state’s solicitor general. The transition unsettled her. In August 2005, a police officer in Austin, answering a call about a woman sitting beside an expressway on-ramp, found Mrs. Cruz with her head in her hands. He transported her to an unnamed facility, according to his report, which said, ‘I believed that she was a danger to herself.’ Mrs. Cruz rebounded, and a decade later, she is a successful executive and a force in Mr. Cruz’s presidential campaign. She has kept a far more active public campaign schedule than any other spouse in the Republican field … After about a decade as a financial adviser to the wealthy clients of Goldman Sachs, she has become a fund-raising power, specializing in soliciting maximum contributions from well-heeled donors … ‘The $10,800 contributions is my lane,’ she said.”

HOT ON THE LEFT

DNC chair insists (laughably) that the Democratic debates were scheduled to maximize audience size. From CNN’s Reliable Sources: “I did my best to make sure, along with my staff and along with our debate partners, to come up with a schedule that we felt was going … to maximize the opportunity for voters to see our candidates.” The next Democratic debate is not until Feb. 11 in Milwaukee, and it is on PBS. There are two GOP debates before that.

HOT ON THE RIGHT

Bill O’Reilly said he will move to Ireland if Sanders is elected president. From Henry Farrell: “If Sanders gets elected president, I’m fleeing … I’m going to Ireland,” he said. “I shouldn’t say it publicly because that will get Sanders more votes. But I’m not going to pay 90 percent of my income to that guy. I’m sorry. I’m not doing it.”

DAYBOOK:

–What’s happening today on the campaign trail: 

  • Hillary attends an organizing event in Toledo, Iowa, at 6:30 p.m. Central.
  • Trump rallies at a high school in Concord, N.H., at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
  • Cruz holds a town hall in Washington, N.H., followed by bus tour stops in Tilton, Plymouth and Whitefield.
  • Rubio is in Iowa, and he will appear in Waverly, Ottumwa, Coralville and Bettendorf.
  • Christie speaks at a town hall breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Central in Council Bluffs.
  • Kasich, in New Hampshire, stops in Plymouth before hosting town halls in Hanover and Lebanon.
  • Santorum holds town halls in Marshalltown, Gladbrook, Waterloo, Waverly and Decorah.
  • Rand will be in Des Moines and Johnston to hold “Stand with Rand” rallies.
  • Fiorina is in Osage for a town hall.

–On the Hill: Recess

–At the White House: Barack and Michelle participate in a service project together at 1:20 p.m. somewhere in D.C. on an otherwise down day. The Vice President is en route to Davos, the first stop on his trip to Switzerland and Turkey.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:

“I do not own a tuxedo. Never have I worn a tuxedo.” – Bernie Sanders during an interview with Time

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

— “We awaken to wind chills as low as the single digits,” the Capital Weather Gang notes. “Today’s sunshine is deceiving as highs only reach 25-30 degrees.  Winds from the northwest at 15-20 mph, gusting higher, hold wind chills in the teens even through the afternoon.”

— Justin Williams’ hat trick led the Capitals to a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. (Isabelle Khurshudyan)

— The D.C. Council still does not know if the city can afford new voting machines before this year’s elections. (Abigail Hauslohner)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

If you missed last night’s debate, here’s a three-minute recap:

“Saturday Night Live” spoofed last week’s Republican debate:


(NBC)

Here’s video from Bei Bei’s debut from the weekend: