Just 48 hours after his landslide win in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders was in Milwaukee, Wis., reminding everyone how far he had come in his quest for the presidency — and perhaps realizing how far he still has to go.
It was a night both candidates could feel good about. Hillary Clinton had more than ample opportunity to show off her mastery of policy, while Sanders' progressive passion was on display as well. As in the five previous meetings between the two, it was Sanders' big vision versus Hillary Clinton's store of knowledge. It was Sanders' idealism soaring and Clinton's realism bringing it to earth. It was his inspiration versus her preparation.
"The American people have responded to a series of basic truths," said Sanders in his opening statement. "We have today a campaign finance system which is corrupt, which is undermining American democracy, which allows Wall Street and billionaires to pour huge sums of money into the political process to elect the candidates of their choice."
Sanders said Americans understand that the economy is rigged, that ordinary workers are putting in longer hours for less pay and that income growth is going almost entirely to the top 1 percent of incomes.
Clinton stressed from the start that she wanted to "knock down all the barriers that are holding Americans back, and to rebuild the ladders of opportunity that will give every American a chance to advance, especially those who have been left out and left behind."
The packed house of Democratic activists on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee was strongly supportive of one candidate or the other — and at least receptive to both. They loved Clinton's two potshots at the state's Republican governor, Scott Walker.
Clinton scored the governor for his battles with labor unions, especially those representing public employees, and said she doubted governors such as Walker would support Sanders' goal to provide free tuition for all at public colleges and universities. Both times, the local crowd of Democrats roared its approval.
And while Sanders had moments guaranteed to make his core supporters ecstatic, he did not dominate the evening as one might expect the 22-point winner of the first primary to do. Part of that was Clinton's persistent cool, which included her answer when asked why 55 percent of the women in New Hampshire had just voted for Sanders.
"I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices — even if that choice is not to vote for me," Clinton said. "I believe that it is most important that we unleash the full potential of women and girls in our society."
Sanders also seemed the less disciplined of the two contenders. At one point, after Clinton had made a "once I'm in the White House" reference, Sanders shot back: "Well, Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet." While it might have pleased his partisans, the remark drew some audible disapproval in the hall.
Sanders also indulged in several asides of a historical nature, tipping his hat to Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and ripping into former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Clinton had cited as someone she listened to.
Still another factor hovering over the proceedings was the coming shift in the demographics of the early-state primary voters. Both the upcoming Democratic contests (Nevada caucuses on Feb. 20, South Carolina primary on Feb. 27) have far more Latino and African-American voters than Iowa and New Hampshire. They also have fewer progressive activists and far less penchant for underdogs. Neither borders either candidate's home state.
The importance the candidates place on these more diverse constituencies was readily apparent in the answers and examples both gave on Thursday night. Sanders talked about the criminal justice system, the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos and the exaggerated difficulty of finding jobs in minority communities.
Sanders said that once he is able to increase taxes on Wall Street and other centers of wealth, he would be able to provide "jobs for millions of young people" and also education to equip them for those jobs. At that point, he said in response to a question, race relations in the U.S. would "absolutely" be better than they have been in the Obama era.
Clinton, for her part, cited the late Nelson Mandela, the legendary leader of South Africa, as her foreign role model in international affairs. But she also repeatedly used her relationship with President Obama as both a human shield and an advertisement for herself.
Questioned about accepting campaign contributions from Wall Street, she noted that Obama had done the same in 2008 and yet still enacted laws Wall Street opposed. When Sanders again dinged her for voting to authorize force against Iraq in 2002, she noted that Obama — like Sanders — had opposed the invasion, yet still tapped her for Secretary of State when he took office.
Clinton also attacked Sanders for praising a book that said Obama in office had disappointed progressives and suggesting someone from the left should challenge his re-nomination in 2012.
Sanders said any senator would have some disagreements with a president, but Clinton responded that Sanders' assessments of Obama as weak and failing the test of leadership were another matter. Sanders noted that Clinton herself had run against Obama in 2008.
The Sanders team also knows that before the next debate takes place, 11 states will have voted on March 1 — Super Tuesday — and another three states on March 5. By the time these two candidates take the stage together again, the race could look quite different.
Even now, the walloping Clinton took in the Granite State has barely cost her anything in the delegate count. She got a share of the delegates in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And she has been endorsed by a big majority of the so-called "superdelegates," the elected officeholders and party officials who will have about a fifth of all the votes at the convention in July in Philadelphia.
All of which makes it important for Sanders to build on his Iowa and New Hampshire performances and maintain his momentum in the 16 states weighing in between now and that next debate on March 6 in Flint, Mich.