CharlestonIf presidential debates really were scored liked boxing matches, you’d have to call tonight’s bout a split decision. Bernie Sanders supporters will have been cheered by their candidate’s counter-punching against the Clinton attacks, telegraphed in the press all week, on his call for truly universal health coverage. And they did cheer, loudly, at his relentless jabs at our corrupt political system, which persistently thwarts any effort to reform our rigged economy.

Meanwhile, partisans of Hillary Clinton will point with pride to her effective flurry of blows on gun control, her obvious command of foreign policy (and inscrutable smile when asked about her relationship with Vladimir Putin), and, most of all, the way she used President Obama as a human shield all night long. It was as if Clinton was following her own weird variation of a rope-a-dope strategy: Instead of draping herself over her opponent, she wrapped her arms around an imaginary Obama and held on for dear life. From healthcare to the economy, her answer was always: I Heart Obama. At one point she even turned a question about her ties to Wall Street into an attempt to depict Sanders as an enemy of Obama.

Will it work? We won’t really even begin to know until February 27, when the South Carolina primary will show whether Clinton’s purported appeal to African-American voters—the obvious target of so many of her comments tonight—holds up. Waiting to get into the Gaillard Center tonight, I saw a lot of African-American elected officials with Hillary pins. And the Bernie supporters rallying outside the hall here in Charleston were the same crowd of earnest young, mostly white hipsters I’d already seen in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The Sanders people can’t be happy about that.

But there was also an air of desperation about Clinton’s newfound respect for the wisdom of South Carolina voters—the same people who in 2008 were dismissed by Bill Clinton, following Obama’s victory here, because they’d also voted twice for Jesse Jackson. The same whiff of fear was also evident in the Clinton campaign’s decision to go on the attack. The campaign even put out a press release calling Friends of the Earth Action a “dark money group” after it bought TV ads praising Sanders for leading the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Even boxing matches aren’t only scored on the basis of punches landed. There is also the question of who controlled the ring, and here Sanders was the obvious winner. Unlike all three of their previous encounters, tonight it was Sanders who set the tone, dominated the discussion, and whose campaign themes—healthcare and the economy—were the focus of the moderators’ questions.

Hillary remains a formidable candidate—and the odds-on favorite here in South Carolina. And she handled an excruciatingly awkward question about her husband’s infidelity with winning dignity—aided yet again by Sanders’s refusal to play the mainstream media game.

But there were moments—like the exchange between a visionary O’Malley and a presidential-sounding Sanders on climate change—where it was possible to forget Clinton was even on stage. For a candidate whose appeal is so tied to her inevitability, that can’t be encouraging.