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And now debaters on the debaters. As the Democrats took the stage in Las Vegas, NPR's Sam Sanders was watching with a nationally-ranked debate team at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Last night in James Blair Hall, room 229, there were about a dozen or so students entirely geeking out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, hello.
SANDERS: How are you guys?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Great.
SANDERS: The debate team at William and Mary. They had the CNN debate playing on a big projection screen. Pizza was delivered. They were ready to watch the Democratic candidates for president square off. Of course, these students don't debate in the same way the candidates do.
JERUSALEM DEMSAS: The circuit that we compete upon is the American Parliamentary Debate Association.
SANDERS: That's Jerusalem Demsas. She is a nationally-ranked debater in this style - parliamentary style. Amelia Koby says her team's debate style is fundamentally different.
AMELIA KOBY: A lot of what we do is based on, like, winning individual arguments. But I imagine we'll see less of this and more going for, like, soundbites and for what's going to appeal to the person at home, making someone else think that they've won instead of actually winning.
SANDERS: But the group was able to come up with a list of criteria to judge the candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Concise, concrete, consistent, direct, responsive, smart, candid, genuine and charismatic.
SANDERS: So we started watching. At the first commercial break, the group had already picked an early winner.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Weirdly, Jim Webb.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Really?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Really?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah.
SANDERS: Wait, wait, wait, who else thinks Jim Webb is winning?
They said it's because he was actually convincing people who had never heard of him that he might be worth voting for. But over the course of the night, Jim Webb's performance took a turn for the weird. When he was asked who his biggest enemy was, Webb, a war veteran, said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM WEBB: I have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me. But he's not around right now.
CIERA KILLEN: And that is when you throw it in and just hope you become a meme. He has nothing else to lose.
SANDERS: That's Ciera Killen. The group had gone from favoring Webb to thinking he had kind of given up. By the end of the night, at least among this group, a winner had emerged.
If you had to grade the candidates on the same criteria that you guys are judged on when you debate, who would've one? Hands raised for O'Malley? Three, six, nine, 13.
It was unanimous. Martin O'Malley because he stuck to the issues the most, the group said, and because he probably changed the most minds.
KILLEN: I don't think anyone who was not going to vote for Hillary before is voting for Hillary now. I think the same thing happened for Bernie. I think the only person that actually made any relative gains was Martin O'Malley.
SANDERS: Jack Hoagland says the current style of TV debates isn't focused enough on issues - more on soundbites. But he says that might not be the fault of the debates.
JACK HOAGLAND: I think this is really just, like, a symptom of how American politics works. In the political system where people do spend a very small amount of time, it does make sense that politicians do this. But I would prefer people pay more attention to policies and not personalities.
SANDERS: Policies not personalities. Jerusalem Demsas says there's a simple fix.
DEMSAS: Have each debate be about a specific topic.
SANDERS: Basically, more time and space for the specifics of issues. Oh, and they agreed on another thing - Lincoln Chafee did not do well.
Who would accept Lincoln Chafee on their debate team?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I don't think I would partner with him.
SANDERS: Tough crowd. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.