Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the other candidates took on gun control, Benghazi and other big issues at the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 race. Here are the highlights. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The five Democrats running for president debated for the first time Tuesday night, a surprisingly spirited affair despite its lack of Donald Trump.  I watched every second -- they do pay me to do this, after all -- and jotted down some of the best and the worst from the Las Vegas strip.

Winners

Hillary Clinton: This was the best two hours of her candidacy to date. Clinton was confident, relaxed and good-natured. She was aggressive from the start and savaged Sanders on his past votes on guns. (He seemed taken aback by her direct hit.) She also got some help from Sanders -- most notably on the controversy surrounding her e-mail server. Sanders said he didn't care about the issue, voters didn't care about the issue and no one wanted to talk about it. Clinton couldn't have said it better herself. And when Lincoln Chafee tried to go back at Clinton on e-mails, she scored the moment of the debate when she curtly responded "no" when asked if she wanted to respond to his comments.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders responded to a question about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. (CNN)

She also smartly turned at least three questions into broad-scale attacks on Republicans, effectively playing the uniter role for the party -- and winning a ton of applause in the process. Not everything Clinton did was pitch perfect. Her "I represented Wall Street" line will likely be used in an ad against her, and her inability to cite anything other than her gender to differentiate her presidency from that of Obama was not so good. Still, Clinton was head and shoulders above everyone else on the stage as a debater. And it wasn't close.

Bernie Sanders: If you were a Democrat who wanted to learn more about the Vermont socialist via the debate, he gave you plenty to like. Sanders is a true believer in liberal ideas, and you can feel his passion when you watch him.  His "I don't want to hear anymore about your damn e-mails" line to Clinton was, probably, the biggest applause line of the night and will be replayed roughly 1 billion times over the next 24-48 hours. In terms of pure interest -- as it relates to what people were searching for during the debate -- there's no question this was a good night for Sanders.


At the same time, Sanders showed that he is a somewhat limited candidate. He looked totally lost on foreign policy -- even when moderator Anderson Cooper teed him up a question on Russia and Vladimir Putin. Sanders is great when he is talking about economic inequality and climate change. When he is talking about anything else, he's sort of eh.

Barack Obama: Not only did he get a chance to address the crowd -- by video! -- at the start of the debate but there was almost zero attempt by any of the five candidates to distance themselves from Obama -- at all. Clinton, who was being closely watched to see where and how she put distance between herself and her former boss, did almost none of that during the debate. Her answer on why she wouldn't be a third term for Obama began with her pledge to continue many of his policies.

Denmark: The Danes were mentioned constantly in the first half hour of the debate. Take that, Norway and Sweden!

Five-candidate debates: Less is more when it comes to candidates on a debate stage. The five people on stage Tuesday night each had a chance to outline their basic vision for the country and to litigate out the disagreements they have. Contrast that with the 11-person Republican debate from last month where chaos reigned. If you were a Republican without a rooting interest in the current field, you had to think that the sooner your field thins, the better.

Losers

Martin O'Malley: The former governor of Maryland needed a moment in this debate to break out of the 1 percent crowd. He didn't get one. Oddly, O'Malley sounded the most like a politician of anyone on the stage even though he is the only one who has never spent any time in office in the nation's capital. O'Malley seemed overly low-key in the first hour of the debate. He never really seemed committed to attacking Clinton, even over his past comments about the presidency not being a crown handed back and forth between two families. It was a "blah" performance for someone who needed a lot more than that.

Joe Biden: If the vice president was hoping for a stumble out of Clinton as he contemplates the race, he didn't get one tonight. And I think it's reasonable to ask whether, by not announcing before the debate, Biden may have missed his moment to strike when Clinton was at her weakest.

Lincoln Chafee: Holy cow. I had low expectations for the former Rhode Island governor going into the debate, but he managed to underperform even those. His explanation for his vote in favor of Glass-Steagall -- it was right when he came to the Senate and every one deserves a "takeover" -- is one of the five worst debate answers I have ever heard. Chafee's explanation of his vote for the Patriot Act -- basically, everyone voted for it -- would have been terrible if he hadn't already bombed the Glass-Steagall question. A genuinely awful performance.

At the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, candidate Lincoln Chafee tried to excuse his voting record on Glass-Steagall as his "very first vote" in Senate after his father died. (CNN)
GeorgeMichael

 

Countdown clocks: Look, CNN. If you are going to have a clock that counts down the days, hours and minutes until the debate starts, then stick to the actual start time. Otherwise, the clock is useless.