Clinton Allays Doubts With Strong Debate Performance

Clinton Allays Doubts With Strong Debate Performance
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LAS VEGAS – Tuesday night’s first debate among five Democratic presidential candidates did not shake up the race for the nomination.

And in that sense, Hillary Clinton cleared a significant hurdle after months of weak poll numbers and public preoccupation with her email server. She went in as the field’s leader, and came out that way. Her next challenge comes Oct. 22, when the former secretary of state will spend a day testifying before a Republican-led House committee.

But perhaps Clinton’s biggest question, unanswered at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino, is what Vice President Joe Biden plans to do. If he decides to enter the race, Clinton’s practiced performance as the inevitable heir to President Obama could be upended.

But if Biden, who watched the debate at home in Washington, had wondered if the 2008 Democratic primary loser might stumble, she made every effort to beat back that notion.

Clinton held her spot as frontrunner and demonstrated why debate experience and what she called “tenacity” matter in presidential politics. But for passion and conviction, Bernie Sanders’ detailed progressive economic agenda came off as thoughtful and genuine, and he lured the perpetually scripted Clinton into an impromptu handshake when he turned to her to bark, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”

Martin O’Malley, the little-known former governor of Maryland, benefited just by appearing in the national spotlight, but may not be able to persuade enough Democrats that he, rather than the former first lady or the Vermont senator, is the better candidate to defeat the eventual GOP nominee.

Former Sens. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee arrived in Nevada in wobbly shape, according to polls, and they departed the same way.

The evening proved to be less of a debate than a brisk question-and-answer session moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in which candidates confronted their own political vulnerabilities and remained largely civil with one another. Would Clinton, accused of flip-flopping on trade, the Keystone XL pipeline and gay marriage, say just about anything to win, Cooper asked her? Is Sanders, who labels himself a Democratic socialist, too radical to be elected president?

Clinton, more than her colleagues, leaned into the contest she wants to wage a year from now against a Republican. Implicitly she asked Democrats whether they want to hold the White House after President Obama’s tenure ends. In other words, will they assent to the hand-to-hand combat she thinks is necessary to make that happen? Clinton denied making calculated U-turns on policy to win voter and donor support. She defended her leftward tilt. And she insisted she has a long record of “getting things done” in Washington.

“I know how to find common ground and I know how to stand my ground,” she said. “And I think we're going to need both of those in Washington to get anything that we're talking about up here accomplished. So I'm very happy that I have both the commitment of a lifetime and the experience of a lifetime to bring together to offer the American people.”

Like Sanders, Clinton focused on aiding middle-class families. And like Sanders, her responses were familiar refrains from the campaign trail, speeches delivered in small bites. “I have a five-point economic plan,” she said more than once.

She wanted Democrats to measure contrasts with Sanders’ more moderate platform on gun control, his more liberal support for free college, and his call to break up big banks rather than focus on risk-taking, for instance. But she also avoided alienating Sanders’ supporters, or Obama’s, for that matter. Clinton’s closest rival is leading by 10 points in New Hampshire, and in Iowa is 11 points behind her, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Webb, who repeatedly complained he couldn’t get equal time from CNN during the debate, was the candidate who took the clearest swipe at Sanders. He questioned whether the senator’s proposals could gain liftoff in a GOP-controlled Congress, or be accepted by American taxpayers as government expansions they could afford. Webb voiced what some anticipated Clinton might verbalize.

After Sanders called for “a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say, ‘Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires,’” Webb all but patted him on the head.

“I’ve got a great deal of admiration and affection for Senator Sanders, but Bernie, I don't think the revolution's gonna come, and I don't think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff,” he said.

Sanders did not sputter or protest, and observers who wondered if his first experience in a presidential debate might prove rocky were mistaken. He patiently explained his definition of socialism as a Democrat, advocated unequivocally for government-provided health care for everyone, and said the wealthy should be taxed to provide benefits to the poor and needy. He defended his votes on guns in rural Vermont as consistent with the needs of his constituents. “All the shouting in the world is not going to do what we want,” he told Clinton, who said Sanders was not tough enough on gun safety.

There were many exchanges that had Sanders and Clinton echoing one another, often at near-shouting decibels, a trend that seems bound to continue for months.

“The secretary is right,” Sanders said at one point when they both advocated for paid family leave.

“I know we can afford it, because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done,” Clinton said after assailing Republican opposition to paid leave.

By the end of the evening, Sanders looked like a presidential candidate who was having a good time. He used his closing statement to ask viewers to donate to his campaign, and he said the evening had flown by.

One question was settled in Las Vegas: There is a genuine primary contest among Democrats. Progressives agree on the central themes for 2016, but Clinton and Sanders interpret the country’s needs differently.

The next debate among Democrats will take place in mid-November. By then, Biden may decide to be heard, too.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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