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2 winners and 3 losers from the Univision Democratic debate

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It was only three days since the last Democratic debate, but Wednesday night's showdown in Miami might as well have been a whole new race.

Since debating in Flint on Sunday night, Bernie Sanders had scored an upset victory in Michigan — a surprise win that's put Hillary Clinton on the defensive while emboldening Sanders.

Clinton, addressing the results directly, noted that she won more votes and more delegates on Tuesday (thanks to her big win in Mississippi) even as she and Sanders split the states. It was a confident and accurate portrayal of the state of the race.

But her words and actions on the debate stage betrayed a much more profound insecurity. While Sunday night she seemed confident in a message that she was sure — based on extensive polling — would deliver a clear Michigan victory on March 8, followed by clear Illinois and Ohio victories on March 15, by Wednesday night she seemed profoundly uncertain of where she stood.

Technical glitches and a shaky command of debate management from a television crew that hasn't been involved in earlier debates this cycle further added to the unsettled atmosphere, as did a rowdy and vocal crowd.

The overall effect was a debate that was not itself a transformative moment in the campaign so much as a signifier of how the campaign has been transformed once again. Clinton still holds a very solid lead, and all signs point to her winning. But nobody — including Clinton herself — is certain of how solid those signs are, and for now she's watching her back quite nervously.

Here are a few people who benefited and suffered from the fog.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

In part, Sanders simply benefited from good fortune. All three of the moderators were more focused on Clinton's weaknesses than Sanders's, and set the tone for a debate that overwhelmingly put Clinton on the defensive. The only really tough question Sanders got came very late in the debate and on an issue — his past praise of Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega — that Democratic primary voters probably don't care about.

Still, despite a favorable landscape, Sanders executed cleanly, crisply, and clearly. He delivered multiple red meat lines that attracted thunderous applause from the audience.

Perhaps most of all, Sanders effectively pulled off the central rhetorical trick of his campaign: repeatedly making policy commitments that are well to the left of the Obama administration while downplaying the idea of a sharp break between himself and the popular incumbent president.

In Clinton's best debates, she wields President Obama as an effective human shield, forcing Sanders to tone down his fiery condemnations of Washington corruption and throwing him off his message. Wednesday night, he didn't have that problem. He slammed Clinton on her speaking fees, where she can't use Obama as a shield, and deftly made a calculated break with Obama on deportations.

Winner: Republicans

Two days ago, I expected Hillary Clinton to win Michigan handily and then take advantage of the Univision debate to begin pivoting to the center and focusing the bulk of her energy on attacking the GOP field. Tonight should have been an opportunity to pin Donald Trump down to his extreme views, to elevate the national profile of some of Ted Cruz's more hard-right positions, and to start questioning the image of John Kasich as a moderate.

Instead, Clinton narrowly lost Michigan and found herself bogged down in a real dogfight of a debate.

Both candidates directed the vast majority of their fire at each other, generating a somewhat exaggerated view of the differences between them and forgoing an opportunity to drive home an anti-Republican message. And the back and forth between Clinton and Sanders largely consisted of a relentless leftward march on every issue under the sun.

Voters alarmed by the state of the Republican field but concerned that Democrats would indulge in overtaxation and be too relaxed about government spending, too soft on crime or too weak on national security, heard absolutely nothing reassuring Wednesday night. Sanders drove home his left-wing message, and Clinton generally found herself tapping gingerly to the left rather than standing her ground.

Loser: Hillary Clinton

From the first day of the 2016 campaign right through to today, Clinton has been the favorite to win the nomination. She has had her stumbles and Sanders has had his victories, but she remains the frontrunner, and that hasn't changed. But one of her core objectives throughout this primary has been not just to win, but to win without letting herself get dragged into left-wing positions that will complicate her task in the general election.

Until tonight, she'd done a pretty good job of it.

But when hit by waves of questions that were less about comprehensive immigration reform than about enforcement of existing immigration law, she made a series of commitments that go well beyond the existing Democratic Party consensus. Clinton indicated that she wouldn't deport children, and maybe wouldn't deport anyone at all as long as they haven't violated non-immigration laws. She even went so far as to suggest she will try to help people who've already been deported come back to the United States.

The narrow political calculation here is clear enough — Clinton needs nonwhite voters to win the primary, and most general election voters probably don't care too much about this. But the net effect is to dull the sense that Donald Trump has an extreme position on immigration by countering "deport everyone" with "deport almost nobody."

Video: The audience booed for eight straight seconds when Hillary Clinton was asked about Benghazi

Loser: Univision

This debate was a mess, starting with the fact that Sanders's microphone didn't work at the beginning through to disastrous audio mixing on the simultaneous translation that often left neither the Spanish nor English audible.

But the problems went well beyond technical issues. The moderators opened the debate with two process questions in a row, and repeatedly went back to the well of faux hardball questions rather than illuminating ones.

Not all the questions were bad, though, and the debate featured many intriguing exchanges. Yet each time an argument was getting good, the moderators would butt in to declare that time was up and we needed to move on to a different subject.

Given the one-on-one nature of the debate, there was simply no need for this. Disagreements between Clinton and Sanders over the wisdom of single-payer health care, over the merits of the 2007 immigration reform bill, over the Export-Import Bank, and a half-dozen other issues ended up being cut short in favor of pivots to often-useless questions about email servers or Benghazi. The result was, on most issues, something more like a side-by-side display of talking points than a real debate.

Loser: Voters who care about immigration

Immigration policy hasn't been central to the 2016 Democratic campaign, and a debate co-hosted by Univision was a perfect opportunity to dive deeper into the topic and get a clearer view of where the candidates stand. As you might expect, we got quite a few questions on immigration. But those questions produced surprisingly little actual clarity on the policy issues or the choices facing the candidates.

Clinton and Sanders, for example, rehearsed a now-familiar dialogue in which she slams him for having opposed the bipartisan 2007 immigration reform bill, after which Sanders explains he opposed it because it expanded guest worker programs that he regards as "akin to slavery."

Does that mean Sanders wants to eliminate these programs? Given that the US has several different classes of guest-worker visas, which ones specifically does he have a problem with? Does Clinton agree with his criticisms of them, even if they reached different conclusions about the merits of the 2007 law? Do the candidates think the current level of immigration to the United States is appropriate? Too high? Too low? What do they make of the rising anti-immigration sentiment in the Republican Party, and how does that change their thinking about the path forward for legislation?

These weedsier questions about immigration are unlikely to be aired in any other forum, and it would have been great to take the time to delve into them rather than spending so much time rehashing questions that have been debated time and again.

Video: A victim of deportation asking Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders their stances on immigration

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