Vermonters Gather For First Democratic Presidential Debate
Tuesday night, Vermonters attended viewing parties across the state to see the Democratic presidential candidates debate for the first time.
Supporters of Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders were closely watching how Vermont's favorite son would fare against his main rival for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In the city where he first won political office, Sanders supporters were out in full force.
At ArtsRiot, a bar in Burlington's south end arts district, Burlington's Progressive Party hosted a crowd of around 200 people to watch the debate.
Attendants gathered in a performance space to watch the debate projected on a large screen with staffers from the Sanders campaign on hand to talk with debate viewers.
The event had the usual features of a political gathering - voter registration, campaign t-shirts for sale - with a twist. The evening opened with a mock debate featuring three local comedians, each with their own take on politics.
At the University of Vermont campus, the Vermont Democratic party hosted a viewing party for around 100 students.
Before the debate began, a handful of statewide Democratic candidates took the mic to juice up the crowd.
"Who's for the former mayor of the Queen City of Vermont, and the junior senator from the state of Vermont, Bernie Sanders?" asked Democratic Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan. The room erupted in cheers. It fell silent when Donovan asked students to show their support for the other four candidates participating in Tuesday's debate.
Donovan, who is running to replace Attorney General Bill Sorrell in 2016, had praise for Sanders, and for another Democrat who is not even in the race. "I personally like Joe Biden," Donovan said. "I think it would be a very interesting dynamic if he got into this race. But I'm proud of the fact that Bernie Sanders is talking about the issues that resonate with me."
Donovan seemed to question whether Sanders could build enough national support to carry his campaign deeper into primary season. But without Vice President Biden in the race, Donovan said he will vote Sanders in Vermont's primary.
Former Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, who is running for governor, also had praise for Sanders.
"I'm a Vermonter, and Bernie has been a great leader in our state. He's been a super senator. I've worked closely with him in my work. He's been on my issues, especially of infrastructure, and I'm thrilled about the issues he's bringing to this race." - Sue Minter, former transportation secretary
"I'm a Vermonter, and Bernie has been a great leader in our state," Minter said. "He's been a super senator. I've worked closely with him in my work. He's been on my issues, especially of infrastructure, and I'm thrilled about the issues he's bringing to this race."
But Minter stopped short of naming whom she'd support in the Democratic presidential primary, saying she's "waiting to see exactly what happens as we move forward."
Former State Sen. Matt Dunee, who's also running to replace Gov. Peter Shumlin, is also undecided, according to a spokesman.
But another gubernatorial candidate, House Speaker Shap Smith, was quick to announce his support for Clinton.
"I was a supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2008," Smith said. "I continue to be a supporter of hers. But I'm also really excited about what Bernie's brought to the debate. I think that he's made sure that we talk about the concerns that average Americans are facing."
Voters can expect to hear more establishment Democrats walking a political tightrope when asked about Sanders' campaign, said Garrison Nelson, a UVM political scientist.
"So you're going to have to be very careful as a statewide candidate not to be critical of Bernie," Nelson said. "Support his candidacy, but not necessarily indicating you're going to, you know, vote for him. They've got to be careful because Bernie's people are very passionate."
Once the actual debate began, the crowd of 200 at ArtsRiot was attentive, pausing only to cheer anytime Sanders made a point.
In one of Sanders' most compelling moments in the debate, he dismissed the attention given to Hillary Clinton's email server. As Sanders pleaded "enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues," the crowd went wild.
But the room also showed love for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. "I personally think O'Malley and Sanders should run as a dual ticket. O'Malley's bolstering and boosting up Sanders' credibility,” said John Crowley.
Until now, Crowley, a recent college graduate, hasn't been very active politically.
"I don't vote. I don't care about politics. Bernie Sanders lit a fire within me that made me feel like if I actually cared about this election I might .... have an effect on changing my personal future," said Crowley. "Which is what American politics was supposed to be about."
"I don't vote. I don't care about politics. Bernie Sanders lit a fire within me that made me feel like if I actually cared about this election I might .... have an effect on changing my personal future, which is what American politics was supposed to be about." - John Crowley
While Crowley was happy with Sanders' debate performance, not everyone thought he was as polished.
Jenni Gagnon, a legal assistant from Burlington, says she supports Sanders, even though she felt his debate chops left something to be desired.
"I think that there were a couple of times that he stumbled and kind of got lost in his words. He's not necessarily as smooth of a debater as some of the other candidates onstage," Gagnon said. "I think that Hillary is a lot smoother. But I think that Bernie's message resonates so strongly that I'm hoping that can overcome some of the issues he has stumbling over his words and getting his points across."
But still, Gagnon, mirroring the mood in the rest of the room, said Sanders has her vote.