Republicans Ignore Bernie Sanders During The GOP Debate & That's A Big Mistake

There were seven people standing onstage during the sixth Republican presidential debate on Thursday night, but you're forgiven if you thought there was one more out there. That's because as often as the candidates attacked each other, they turned their ire on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton nearly just as frequently. But there's one thing that's awkward about that approach ― namely, the Republicans ignored Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton, even though the latter is looking less and less like a sure thing by the day.

To be clear, he wasn't completely absent from the debate. Fox Business Network moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich to explain what he thought of Sanders' appeal, and noted that he's giving the once-inevitable Clinton a serious run for her money. Kasich responded glibly, joking that if Sanders were the nominee, the Republicans would win every state come November.

But beyond this solitary mention of the Vermont senator and economic justice champion, the conversation was mostly about Clinton, and how awful it would be if she became president. She was called a liar, accused of being an enabler of sexual assault, and virtually labeled a criminal. Jeb Bush joked that she might spend her first 100 days between the White House and a courthouse.

Chris Christie's presence was practically enough to ensure some Hillary-related fearmongering, too ― in each and every debate thus far, he's taken a moment to remind GOP voters that "if you're worried about [insert issue here], think about what it'll be like if Hillary Clinton is president!"

But here's the thing: Clinton isn't as bulletproof, ironclad, or assured a front-runner right now as she once seemed. If this sounds familiar, it's because we've been here before ― back in 2008, Clinton was the obvious next president of the United States right up until she wasn't, beaten by a rousing insurgent campaign by then-Sen. Barack Obama. Now, in 2016, the same script could be playing out again, with Sanders opening up narrow but headline-grabbing leads over Clinton in the crucial early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Moreover, Sanders is no slouch in hypothetical match-ups against the Republican field. His campaign made this point in a tweet following Kasich's "all 50 states" ribbing, pointing out his solid numbers against Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz.

In short, the GOP field could be doing themselves a real disservice here. It could end up being similar to what transpired in 2008, when a surprise Democratic nominee catches the Republican Party flat-footed ― the McCain campaign never quite mustered the kind of effort against Obama that you'd imagine they could've against Clinton, given her decades upon decades in public life compared to Obama's relative newness. And while Sanders is nowhere near as fresh a face as Obama was back then, he's every bit the singular, unique political figure.

It'd also be a huge miscalculation for the Republicans to view Sanders as an easy mark. While it might be easy to laugh off Sanders' candidacy in the context of a GOP debate on FBN ― where visions of unfettered capitalism reign supreme, and talk of economic justice tends to be thin ― that's not necessarily the case among the broader public, like when it comes to his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 dollars an hour. While different people might disagree whether that's the ideal figure, support for raising the minimum wage is a hell of a lot stronger than the GOP candidates might like to admit.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Simply put, there's no telling exactly when Republicans will start taking Sanders seriously, if at all. But there's little doubt that the man himself is feeling some positive vibes lately ― between cruising on the strength of some positive polls, and turning up the rhetorical heat on Clinton of late, he's clearly making his last, big push to overtake her efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he succeeds, it could change the game in a big way ― especially if it catches the GOP off guard.