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CNN, Sanders provide space for Clinton to own stage

Zurawik on Martin O'Malley: 'Compared to Chafee and Webb, he looked absolutely vice presidential.'

Don't blame CNN's Anderson Cooper. As moderator of the first TV debate among Democratic candidates, he tried.

After a commercial break at 9:45 Tuesday night, he took the debate to Hillary Clinton, asking her about the private email server she used as secretary of state.

After a TV-smooth bit of faux candor that included the former secretary of state saying it wasn't her "best choice," she started slipping into her imperial voice saying, "Let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee... a partisan vehicle." She then went on to essentially blame Republicans for her email troubles.

To his credit, Cooper didn't let her play that game. As she started ticking off talking points about what "the American people" allegedly want to hear about instead of her emails, Cooper interrupted her.

"Secretary Clinton, Secretary Clinton, with all due respect, isn't it a little hard for you to say this is all a partisan issue? There's an FBI investigation. And President Obama just two days ago said this is a legitimate issue."

"Well," she said, looking for the first time all night like she was a little off balance, "I never said it wasn't legitimate."

Cooper then called on Bernie Sanders, who had been trying to jump in through much of the back and forth. It would have been a perfect chance for her nearest challenger to do some serious challenging.

But, instead, Sanders came in with, "Let me say something. Let me say something that might not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right: And that is the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. ... Enough with your emails. Let's talk about the real issues."

And with that, Sanders handed the night to Clinton.

I hope Sanders enjoyed the handshake and thanks Clinton gave him onstage, because he threw the block that allowed her to stroll untouched into the end zone.

Cooper tried again with a follow-up question to Lincoln Chafee even in the face of a Las Vegas convention hall full of Democrats cheering Sanders' words.

"That's obviously very popular with this crowd," Cooper said over the applause and cheers, "but Gov. Chafee you said something different on the campaign trail. You said this is a huge issue. Standing here in front of Secretary Clinton, are you willing to say that to her face?"

And he did, questioning her "credibility" and "ethical standards."

But Clinton swatted Chafee, the joke of the night, away like a mosquito.

When asked by Cooper if she would like to reply to Chafee, she smiled dismissively and simply said, "No."

The message: He's not worth a reply.

Sad to say, Chafee proved her right when he explained a misguided vote he cast on a controversial banking bill by saying it was his first vote in the Senate and his "dad had just died."

When Cooper pressed him by asking if he was saying that he cast a vote not knowing what he was voting for, the former Rhode Island governor told Cooper he thought the moderator was "being a little hard" on him.

Yikes. Chafee had the worst TV debate since Rick Perry couldn't remember what agencies he had vowed to close if he was elected president.

Overall, CNN was a winner on this debate thanks largely to Cooper, who was much more focused, aggressive and in command than Jake Tapper had been in the GOP debate. It is fascinating that as strong and well-prepared as Cooper was, Clinton still steamrollered him, repeatedly refusing to stop when he tried to break in until she had made her points.

I hated the hopped-up, show-biz opening CNN gave the debate.

"In the heart of Las Vegas, a marquee event," an announcer's voice intoned.

At first, I thought CNN was making it into reality TV: labeling Clinton "The Front-runner" and Sanders "The Surprise Threat."

But then I realized they were doing a version of NBC's "Sunday Night Football" opening. All we needed was Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood.

Wait, we had Sheryl Crow singing "The Star Spangled Banner" in this Las Vegas room.

But instead of more politics as entertainment, we did get some substance. We really found out something about the candidates.

Chafee and Jim Webb are way out of their depths. Say goodnight, guys.

Which, I guess, makes Maryland's Martin O'Malley a bit of winner. Compared to Chafee and Webb, he looked absolutely vice presidential.

Compared to Clinton, though, he still looked like a single-digit also ran.

Sanders was up and down, in and out, and all over the place. He had a few fine moments of passion in talking about income inequality, but at other times, he seemed to lose the thread of what he wanted to say. And while Clinton managed to never sound shrill, Sanders sounded like he was yelling at the umpire for a bad call much of the night.

No doubt about it, Clinton was the big winner. She was smooth, polished, prepped and managed to keep her worst instincts in check. Each time she started sounding regal or imperious, she caught herself and reined it in.

I wish Cooper and CNN had found a way to further press her. But after Sanders threw in with her on how the "American people" want the media to lay off on email questions, I am not sure what more Cooper had done without coming across as if he was hectoring her.

Forget about Sanders handing her the debate. I wonder if he handed her the nomination Tuesday night.

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