By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 10/14/15 01:57 AM EDT
LAS VEGAS — The first Democratic presidential debate lived up to its billing Tuesday night as an energized Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWhat Trump and Obama have in common Trump demands Obama not pardon Clinton for 'crimes' Libertarian VP: Clinton might be the most qualified to be president MORE sought to assert her dominance over the field, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump defends his 3 a.m. tweetstorm Clinton's 'superpredators' comment most damaging by either candidate It's Bernie Sanders vs. Gary Johnson for millennial votes MORE (I-Vt.) attempted to rally progressives to his cause and three other candidates looked for a breakthrough moment.
But who saw success and who saw their hopes wither on the Las Vegas stage?
Republican and Democratic strategists found common ground on one point on Tuesday night: Clinton was the runaway winner.
The former secretary of State showed the benefits of being the most experienced debater on the stage, armed with substantive points on policy, well-practiced rebuttals to expected lines of attack and some neat soundbites.
After spending months being pummeled by the controversy over her use of a private email account while secretary of State, Clinton’s back was up against the wall — and she was facing a growing threat from the ascendant Sanders.
But she might very well have stopped the rot — and muted anxious voices within the Democratic Party — in Las Vegas.
Polished and poised, she hit Sanders on issues such as gun policy. She also took several opportunities to slam Republicans and embraced the history-making nature of her campaign to become the first female president, something she was reluctant to do in 2008.
Best of all, she got an unexpected gift from Sanders when he weighed in on the email controversy. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he said to applause from the audience — and a handshake from a grinning Clinton.
With the president’s approval rating hovering around 42 percent, a number of pundits had wondered if the candidates on the stage Tuesday night would distance themselves from him. None did, at least in any substantive way. To the contrary, most were eager to display their admiration. Asked about racial justice, for example, Clinton lauded the president as “a great moral leader on these issues.”
Skepticism about Obama was couched in the most gentle of terms. Asked if a future Clinton administration would in effect be a third term for President Obama, the former secretary of State merely said she would go “further” than the incumbent president.
The Vermont senator had his moments, but he was neither as fluent nor as effective as Clinton. He made emphatic points about income inequality and his reasons for calling himself a democratic socialist. But Clinton clearly gained the upper hand over him at times. “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” Sanders said at one point, near the start of the debate. But Clinton shot back, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
Vice President Biden
The Vice President hasn’t announced whether he’ll run for the top job, and CNN’s decision to keep a lectern backstage in reserve for him proved unnecessary. On one hand, the strength of Clinton’s performance on the debate stage may have narrowed Biden’s window to enter the race. Still, Biden might have fared even worse had he entered the debate under-prepared and rusty, only to face Clinton at her best.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee couldn’t gain traction on Tuesday night. O’Malley could have been the breakout candidate of the debate but had no truly memorable moments with the exception of a strong closing statement. Webb spent considerable time complaining that he was being all but ignored by Anderson Cooper and other questioners. Chafee took implicit jabs at Clinton by twice noting that his public career had been free of scandals, but the point never stuck, and he stumbled badly at times.