LAS VEGAS — Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonConquering Trump returns to conservative summit How the candidates for DNC chair stack up ahead of Saturday's vote DNI official challenges reports of low morale in intelligence community MORE had the best night of her presidential campaign in Las Vegas on Tuesday, scoring a clear-cut victory over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDNC chair campaigns scramble ahead of tight vote How the candidates for DNC chair stack up ahead of Saturday's vote Sanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress MORE (I-Vt.) and her other rivals at the first Democratic debate.
Sanders, by contrast, was put on his heels early by having to defend his position on gun control, the one issue on which he can be outflanked to the left by Clinton and others. The Vermont senator enjoyed better moments as the encounter, televised by CNN, went on.
But he never truly took control and some of his answers — when asked to name the most serious challenge to national security, he opted for climate change — may deepen doubts about his electability.
The likely effect of the debate on Sanders’s poll ratings is hard to gauge, however. His name recognition is much lower than Clinton’s, which means he could benefit from the biggest TV audience of his career. He effectively communicated his central ideas about income inequality and Wall Street malfeasance, and he offered a strong response to a question about Black Lives Matter and racial justice.
Sanders campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, insisted to reporters in the spin room afterward that Sanders was “setting the agenda in the Democratic Party.”
Still, it was Clinton’s night, her performance polished enough to calm Democratic nerves, consolidate her standing as a dominant front-runner — and also, perhaps, lower the chance of Vice President Biden entering the presidential race. CNN had a lectern held in reserve for Biden, but he was never mentioned throughout the proceedings.
One of the debate’s bigger surprises was Clinton’s willingness to take the fight to Sanders, who had pledged in advance not to attack her.
Asked whether Sanders was strong enough on gun-control legislation, she responded “No, not at all.” Referring to Sanders’s somewhat technical explanation for why he had voted against certain gun-control legislation, Clinton noting she had voted in favor, adding, “It wasn’t that complicated to me.”
A few moments before, Clinton had interjected to implicitly criticize Sanders for the stridency of his criticisms of capitalism and his belief that the United States had lessons to learn from Scandinavian nations. She conspicuously defended small-business entrepreneurship and American exceptionalism.
One of the former secretary of State’s more memorable soundbites was also a jab at Sanders, whom Clinton supporters and others on the center-left criticize as unrealistic.
“I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she said.
Clinton also ducked some of the more predictable punches thrown her way. Asked about the email controversy that has roiled her campaign for months and eroded her standing in polls, she admitted it “wasn’t the best choice” to use a private account while serving as secretary of State. But she sought to paint inquiries into the matter as motivated by partisanship.
In perhaps the debate’s single most memorable moment, Sanders came to her defense, saying that he agreed with her view of the email matter and adding emphatically, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails … Enough of the emails.”
A smiling Clinton, standing next to Sanders, reached over to shake his hand and offer thanks. In the post-debate spin room, John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign, enthused, “He spoke for me!”
The night was not entirely error-free for Clinton. One of her explanations for a recent shift to the left, her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline — “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone” — surely provided free ammunition for a future attack ad against her.
Still, she was scoring points even late in the debate, bringing loud cheers when she assailed the Republican Party’s often-stated opposition to “big government.”
“They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood,” an impassioned Clinton said. “They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it.”
Of the three other Democratic candidates on the stage — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee — none shone brightly enough to vault into contention in the race, given their rock-bottom poll ratings at the outset.
O’Malley’s closing statement was perhaps his best moment, but he got off to a tentative start. He was also slapped down by Clinton early on when, after he implicitly criticized her vote authorizing force in Iraq, she deadpanned by thanking him for endorsing her for president several years later.
Webb appears to be at odds with the Democratic base on a number of issues, including gun control. Stylistically he may not have helped his cause by frequent complaints that moderator Anderson Cooper was not directing enough questions his way.
Chafee, whose bid has long been seen as a somewhat eccentric endeavor, suffered the worst debate of all, since his most memorable moment was a bad one — an answer in which he seemed to suggest that he didn’t really understand his own vote in favor of allowing greater consolidation of the financial system.
“We are going to win!” Clinton told supporters in a brief appearance immediately after the debate. Given how emphatically she claimed the spoils in this debate, held in a lavish casino resort hotel, there may be even fewer Democrats willing to bet against her.