6 takeaways from the fourth Democratic debate

In the last Democratic debate before 2016 voting starts, the battle lines were drawn betweenHillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in their increasingly close primary fight. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley just wanted 10 seconds to speak. Here are six takeaways:

Clinton embracing Obama — especially in South Carolina

The message was striking — and so was the setting. The man responsible for the most significant defeat of Hillary Clinton’s public life is Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary fight. But Sunday night in Charleston, S.C., Obama had no more ardent defender than his one-time nemesis.

In a response to Sanders’ criticism of her on banks and receiving fees from Goldman Sachs, Clinton attached herself to Obama.

“He’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street,” Clinton said.

“I’m going to defend Dodd-Frank, and I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results,” she added.

She also pledged to build on the Affordable Care Act (one of the nation’s “greatest accomplishments,” she said), blasted Sanders for voicing support for a 2012 primary challenge to Obama and defended the president on his response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

And this fulsome defense of the president’s legacy was delivered in a state where Obama handed Clinton a stinging loss in 2008, defeating her by nearly 30 points. Perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence.

Clinton pushing gun issue

If Sanders thinks he has a winning issue against Clinton in blasting her over Wall Street ties, Clinton thinks she has one against him with guns. On Saturday, the Vermont senator indicated he might be supportive of a measure that would remove the immunity to liability gun manufacturers enjoy. Clinton sought to capitalize on this and other areas where she sees his views as out-of-step with Democratic primary voters.

“I am pleased to hear that Senator Sanders has reversed his position on immunity,” she said in backhanded praise of his possible change-of-heart on the liability question. She also slammed him for supporting the “Charleston loophole,” a reference to a three-day wait period that after a clerical error allowed Dylann Roof to purchase the weapon he used to murder nine people in a historic black church in Charleston last June.

Sanders promised to “re-look” at the gun liability question and said his experience representing a rural state like Vermont that’s more averse to gun restrictions would put him in an “excellent position” to build consensus on the issue. But Clinton’s attacks in a state scarred so recently and tragically by gun violence could prove potent.

Making the case for realism

Sanders, like Obama in 2008, is talking about dramatic changes to the way politics in Washington is going to work. He’s promising a “political revolution” and universal health care through “Medicare for all” (he unveiled the details of the plan hours before the debate). Clinton, though, is striking a more pragmatic tone, perhaps banking on the fact that Democratic primary voters after eight years of acrimony between Obama and Republicans in Congress will ultimately view the Democratic race through a more realistic than idealistic lens.

On health care, she said: “We have accomplished so much already. I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t to want see us start over again with a contentious debate.”

She also cited her work with Republicans ranging from Lindsey Graham to Tom DeLay — not names one typically hears in this context in a Democratic debate.

Bill Clinton’s past not an issue in this primary

He may be providing fodder to Donald Trump, but don’t expect the 42nd president’s 1990s-era scandals to become an issue in the Democratic race. Sanders was asked about comments he’d made about Bill Clinton where he called the former president’s sex scandals “totally disgraceful and unacceptable.”

In a moment reminiscent of his line in the first debate in October where he dismissed the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails — “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” — the Vermont senator similarly took the Bill Clinton issue off the table, if it was ever there at all.

Saying the question “annoys him,” Sanders blamed the media for continually trying to bait him into attacking Hillary Clinton.

“I’m going to debate Secretary Clinton, Governor O’Malley, on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton’s personal behavior,” Sanders said.

O’Malley’s struggle to get noticed

Martin O’Malley hasn’t had an easy time of it in the Democratic race. He’s been in the low single digits nationally, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s campaigned continuously since launching his White House bid in May. He even barely qualified for Sunday’s debate based on NBC’s polling criteria.

While he may have been on the stage, he may be most remembered for his pleas for more time.

There was the moment when he asked moderator Lester Holt for “just 10 seconds” to weigh in on a question about drug abuse, as Holt ignored him and cut to commercial. There was the time when, after returning from a commercial, Holt offered Clinton 30 more seconds after previously cutting her off and O’Malley asked: “Can I get 30 seconds, too?”

As the debate closed, Holt asked the candidates whether they’d like to weigh in on anything they hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss in the previous two hours of the debate. “And, we’ll start with Governor O’Malley,” Holt said, as the crowd laughed, the humor seemingly lost on no one.

“Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Holt said.

Foreign policy not providing sharp dividing lines

In the second Democratic debate, which occurred the day after the Paris terror attacks, foreign policy dominated. Tonight, it was about halfway in until it came up at all.

Once it did, the candidates talked about Iran, Syria and the Islamic State, among other things. Clinton, again, sought to link herself with the Obama administration, expressing pride for her role in imposing Iran sanctions (Clinton and Sanders both expressed their support of the Iran nuclear agreement) and defending the president on Syria. O’Malley noted how he and his rivals didn’t employ the much more hawkish language frequently heard from GOP candidates.

Perhaps most noticeable was that Clinton came away largely unscathed, as her opponents didn’t seek to jab at her tenure as secretary of State. When asked whether the Obama administration — and, by extension, Clinton — had helped to “create a vacuum” that allowed the Islamic State to take root, Sanders demurred.

“No. I think the vacuum was created by the disastrous war in Iraq, which I vigorously opposed.” However, in absolving Clinton of complicity during her years in Obama’s Cabinet, he did manage to highlight the fact that he’d voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002 while in the House, which she, of course, supported as a senator.