STATESBORO, GEORGIA – Anderson Cooper wasn’t going to take anybody’s shit. Especially not Jim Webb’s.

In a debate where most speculation centered around whether Hillary could be a frontrunner or if Bernie could chip away at her national lead, the biggest fight in Las Vegas’ Wynn Casino felt like it might’ve been the moderator squaring off with former senator and Secretary of the Navy Webb, who bragged about killing a Vietcong soldier and mugged unabashedly for time considerations.

The event, heavily advertised by cable-news loser CNN as a showdown between Clinton and Sanders, with a possible cameo by vice-president-turned-Hamlet Joe Biden, could’ve backslid into a tedious bore if it wasn’t for Cooper’s insistence on immediately challenging the candidates.

For Clinton it was her temperate and ever-changing views.

Sanders took it on the chin for his perceived coziness with gun manufacturers.

O’Malley got hit for leaving Baltimore a burning crater.

And Webb and Chaffee took their turns for being boorish, out of touch, and laughably inept.

Every angle landed squarely with the questioner, save for Bernie’s, which invited both Clinton and O’Malley to take turns criticizing his record and draw first blood. Bernie slipped out and Webb helped him by begging for attention, which was a minor miracle considering O’Malley was looking for any opportunity to establish himself, and gun control, despite his record in Baltimore, is his only chance.

Sanders could’ve scored a few more blows when it came to Clinton’s troubles, but in the surprise of the debate he cried that Americans were tired of “hearing about Hillary Clinton’s damn E-mails,” a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card that could go a long way in possibly clearing any and all roadblocks down the road.

Earlier this season I compared the Clinton/Sanders showdown to the Mayweather/Pacquiao mega-bout where Floyd buzzed around the ring like a pest Pac-Man wasn’t willing to swat, and that association seemed apt tonight. Sanders has promised from the beginning of his candidacy that he’s not willing to go negative or attack, and maybe that pledge will ultimately be his undoing as Clinton doesn’t seem to share his hesitance.

The secret weapon might very well be the former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. Though his performance was uneven, he landed blows when he wanted to. In Hillary he found a natural foil, particularly when addressing necessary reforms of big banks and Wall Street, a coupling the former secretary of state has routinely embraced. It was in the gut of the debate that O’Malley and Sanders, surrounding Clinton, voiced their disagreements when it came to regulation, a one-two combo that put Clinton off-balance and disrupted a portion of her debate.

It’s reminiscent of the 2008 debates in which then Senator Barack Obama fared poorly in early debates but gained his station as Joe Biden laid into Clinton, opening the door for Obama to gain his footing. It was this partnership that led Obama to choose Joe as his vice-president over Evan Bayh, who could deliver Indiana but hadn’t ushered him into relevance. The relationship bought a two-term presidency for Obama and a return to national significance for Biden, who’s gone from an also-ran along the lines of Webb and Chafee to the biggest elephant in the room, the Decision of Joseph Biden.

The analysis is that he won’t run.

That he watched this debate and saw a strong Clinton performance and pulled his cards back from the table.

That he recognizes there’s no space left-of-center, especially for an establishment candidate with years’ worth of baggage.

I’m guessing these people don’t know Joe Biden because, for all of his likability, he’s always been a slave to his ambitions. He’s been running since he ran for the senate and he’s survived one indignity after another, most coming from his constant inability to go a single speech without a painful gaffe but some owing to his un-talked-about penchant for plagiarism.

But he still sees himself as a man of destiny.

A determined figure meant to lead.

There’s been a lot of talk the Draft Biden movement intrigued and seduced him more than his confidants would like to admit and he obviously loves being the man in demand.

The real remaining question is whether he can outflank Hillary not on the issues but on the trustworthiness front. Hillary’s weakness has never been her views, which change in concert with the winds of polls, but Biden can wound her by framing himself as a moderate liberal who’s always been moderately liberal. The Democratic Stalwart who practically invented the role in the first place.

It’s the same patch of turf that Biden has sniffed out his entire career. The political landscape he’s molded and controlled since he started taking the Amtrak from Delaware to D.C. The question isn’t whether Biden can cut out his own base; it’s where that base will come from and what it will amount to.

After tonight, it’s painfully obvious Clinton is going to continue her career as a competent politician and a poor campaigner. While she scored points with her usual array of pet issues – primarily her odyssey to become the first female president – she continued a long tradition of stepping into traps she could’ve easily avoided, primarily when she was asked about her Iraq vote, an Achilles’ heel to begin with, and coupled it with Benghazi, which is a freshman mistake at best.

Also, much to her chagrin, Bernie’s not going anywhere. His stake in the Democratic Party is less an insurgency than a rising tide of liberalism that’s wresting power from the traditional means of DNC control. He’s in this to the end and we’ll have to see whether he poaches a handful of states or if he can build that lasting revolution he’s been touting the last six months.

And so now, in the wake of the first debate, we have to wonder what happens when and if the crossfire picks up, whether that’s O’Malley sniping Clinton for scrap points or the governor partnering with a newly-invested and invigorated Biden, the two of them hitting her from the left and the right simultaneously. Sanders is the only one with a built-in constituency besides Clinton, and when the real shit hits the fan, there’s still no telling who’s going to answer the bell.

Photo: 2016 Democratic Candidates – Caricatures by DonkeyHotey

About The Author

Jared Yates Sexton

A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton is the author of An End to All Things (2012, Atticus Books), The Hook and the Haymaker (2015, Split Lip Press), and Bring Me the Head of Yorkie Goodman (2015, New Pulp Press). He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.