The fourth Democratic presidential debate — and the last one before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary next month — is in the books. The best and the worst from the night are below. And make sure to check out our annotated debate transcript!


* Bernie Sanders: Yes, Sanders has one volume: shouting. And, yes, he got tripped up a few times during the debate on his voting record — especially on guns. But throughout the debate's first hour — the hour when most people, especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest, were watching — he was the prime mover in virtually every discussion from Wall Street reform to health care to climate change. He was on offense, accusing rival Hillary Clinton of half-measures and political caution at a moment when boldness is required.

Sanders held his own in the foreign-policy-focused second hour of the debate, something he had not done in debates past. And he had one of his best moments of the exchange at an unlikely time — in response to a question about his criticism of Bill Clinton's past behavior. Sanders turned the question into one focused on how the campaign he is running is about policy, not personal differences — to much applause.

More than anything he said, though, 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.

* Martin O'Malley: Early in the debate, I had the former Maryland governor pegged for the "loser" category because he was doing the one thing I hate: complaining about how little time he had to talk. The truth is that when one candidate is in the 50s in national polling, another is in the 40s and a third is in the, well, twos, the candidate in the twos shouldn't get as many questions.

But, to O'Malley's credit, he turned the corner on getting ignored and by the end of the debate was downright likable. Will it change anything about his minuscule support in Iowa and New Hampshire? No. But kudos to him. He did well in an impossible situation.

One other important note about O'Malley: He tipped the scales to Sanders during a pitched fight between the senator from Vermont and Clinton over Wall Street reform. O'Malley chimed in by bashing Clinton as a defender of the same old, same old when it came to bank behavior — doing Sanders a major favor in the process.

* Rand Paul: The senator from Kentucky isn't going to be the Republican presidential nominee. But he may have a future as a professional political tweeter. Paul's counter-programming of the Democratic debate via Twitter was sardonic and fun — two things politics can always use more of.

*President Obama: Clinton went out of her way, repeatedly, to praise what the current president has done in office — from Obamacare to Iran and back. Sanders sought to play down his differences with Obama by noting that "he and I are friends." Had O'Malley had time to talk, I am certain he would have praised Obama, too.


* Hillary Clinton: The former secretary of state was, as always, solid. And, at times — like in her closing statement on the water in Flint, Mich. — she was outstanding.  Her knowledge — both the depth and the breadth of it — is on full display in these debate settings.

So, why is she in the loser column? Because she did nothing in the debate to slow the momentum that Sanders is building in Iowa and New Hampshire. Aside from guns, where Clinton scored a clean win against Sanders, she was unable to effectively cast him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist and herself as the only person who could truly fight for — and win on — Democratic priorities.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley spar over their respective records on gun control on Jan. 17. (NBC/YouTube)

Time and again, she was boxed into defending a status quo that the American public — Democrats and Republicans alike — is dissatisfied with. This tweet from the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof perfectly captures that sentiment:

The Clinton-as-cautious-pragmatist vs. Sanders-as-idealist-fighter is not a good dynamic for the former secretary of state.

* Sunday night debates: Let's call the Democratic debate schedule what it is: ridiculous. A Saturday debate just before Christmas. A Sunday night debate just before a federal holiday. No debate from now until AFTER the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Seriously? Say what you will about the Republican National Committee's attempts to influence the debate calendar. It pales in comparison to the travesty the Democratic National Committee has made of its own debates. Period.