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Democratic debate: Progressives win the night

There was a clear champion of the Democratic debate Tuesday, and it wasn’t a specific candidate -- progressive policies and ideals won the night.

There was one clear champion of the first Democratic debate of the election cycle Tuesday, and it wasn’t a specific candidate -- progressive policies and ideals won the night.

Issues of economic populism dominated the forum, with the White House hopefuls hitting progressive notes on debt-free college, paid family leave, strengthened Social Security benefits and Wall Street reform. And the embrace of progressive policies is riling up the Republican candidates.

For Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the full embrace was not surprising. The self-described democratic socialist has made tackling income inequality the bedrock of his platform. And his authenticity on the issue is hard to challenge -- Sanders has been repeating the same refrain for decades.

RELATED: Clinton and Sanders camps look to capitalize on strong debate

But it was Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s bear-hug of progressive ideals that stood out in the debate. The former secretary of state has tacked firmly to the left on a number of policy goals in her second presidential campaign -- from equal pay to LGBT equality to universal pre-kindergarten -- staking out a far more progressive agenda than what was seen in 2008. But Tuesday’s Democratic debate further cemented the candidates' center of gravity around strong progressive ideals. 

“I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done,” Clinton declared to rancorous applause.

While it has become a foregone conclusion that progressive idol Sen. Elizabeth Warren will not be making a 2016 White House bid, a number of her devout supporters maintained that her influence on the issues was undeniable on Tuesday night’s debate stage.

A coalition of liberal groups -- the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and -- have combined forces to advocate for a far-reaching progressive agenda and to press Democratic candidates on the economic populism that the Massachusetts senator has championed. They call themselves “The Warren wing.”

Group leaders had sent a letter to the top Democratic contenders ahead of the debate, urging them to address college affordability, Social Security, banking and racial equality -- check, check, check and check. Following Tuesday night’s debate, the Warren wing took a victory lap.

“What this speaks to, more than anything, is that the Warren wing of the Democratic Party is winning. And the Wall Street wing -- which was so powerful and for so long -- is now dying,” said Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America. “There is no doubt that not only is income inequality at the center of the race, but all of these candidates are vying to be the Warren wing candidate of choice.”

The Democrats' full-throated embrace of progressive values had some on the right waking up with a hangover of indignation on Wednesday. FOX News’ Stuart Varney started off by declaring that Democrats are “giving stuff away” and were effectively “buying votes.” It didn’t take long for Republican presidential campaigns to echo the sentiment.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ribbed the debate as resembling an event from the early 1980s.

“It was basically a liberal versus liberal debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff: Free college education. Free college education for people illegally in this country. Free health care. Free everything," Rubio said on Fox News' "Fox and Friends."

RELATED: 5 head-scratching debate moments

Ying Ma, a spokeswoman for Ben Carson’s campaign, said Democrats made a lot of empty promises that “we don’t have the money for.”

“They promised a lot of goodies, everything from debt-free college to instate tuition for illegal immigrants,” Ma told MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart. “And they made it explicitly clear that they want the rich to pay for all of these things.”

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Republican attacks on issues like debt-free college and jailing Wall Street bankers would not pan out as a winning strategy for presidential hopefuls.

“They have not learned the lesson of the 47% comments -- we saw how well that worked for Mitt Romney,” Green said. “Part of the reason we pushed these issues is that they are political gold with a general electorate.”