Clinton now has tight grip on Dem nomination

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton email headache is about to get worse Asian, Pacific Islander lawmakers to endorse Clinton Feds fight to prevent Clinton deposition in email case MORE tightened her grip on the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination Wednesday, when Vice President Biden announced he would not launch a White House bid.

Biden’s decision to stay on the sidelines, coupled with Clinton’s commanding performance in last week’s debate in Las Vegas, gives the former secretary of State a strong wind at her back ahead of her testimony Thursday to the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

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It is a dramatic shift from a few weeks ago, when Clinton’s poll numbers were being eroded by the controversy over her use of a private email account and server while at State; her main rival for her party’s nod, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was gaining ground; and broader Democratic doubts about the former first lady’s campaign were stoking speculation about a Biden candidacy.

Now, all has changed. Some experts even tell The Hill that the battle for the nomination is as good as over.

“To all intents and purposes, she is the nominee, short of some fundamental catastrophe,” said one Democratic strategist who has been critical of Clinton in the past.

Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, also asserted that the deal was sealed.

“This means she’ll be the Democratic nominee for president,” Levesque said. “Round One of the Democratic nominating process is over.”

Within Clinton’s orbit, Biden was seen as a more serious challenger than Sanders, the liberal Vermont senator.

Clinton allies breathed a sigh of relief after the Biden news, saying the vice president would have been the only one to “really give her a run for the money,” as one put it. The former secretary of State and Biden spoke on the phone after his announcement in the White House Rose Garden, according to Clinton’s traveling press secretary, Nick Merrill, who declined to describe the specifics of their conversation. 

“It’s really good news for us,” said one staunch Clinton loyalist. “Biden people are Clinton people and vice versa. This translates to more votes for us, I think.” 

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon agreed. 

“Biden would have drawn from the same well that Hillary Clinton did — establishment Democrats, minority Democrats, older Democrats,” he said. “All of those people, Clinton would have had to fight Joe BidenJoe BidenClinton urged to go liberal with vice presidential pick Biden will host cancer research summit in DC Reid throws wrench into Clinton vice presidential picks MORE for. And now she doesn’t.”

Biden’s public agonizing over whether to run may have benefitted Clinton.

Some insiders feel that Clinton has upped her game of late, as the threat from the vice president loomed larger. 

The specter of Biden “caused [Clinton] to get better in the last couple of weeks,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “I hope they continue along that path.”

This dynamic was seen not just in her debate performance in Las Vegas but in shifts to the left on policy, such as her declarations of opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Those moves boxed Biden out, experts say, as well as helped to make Clinton more palatable to progressives.

Clinton has two more opportunities this week to build on her momentum.

Many Democrats believe she could use Thursday’s Capitol Hill encounter with the House Benghazi panel to perform some political jujitsu, turning Republican attacks to her advantage with independent and left-leaning voters.

On Saturday, Clinton is set to speak at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.

In 2008 she finished third in the Iowa caucuses behind both Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator, and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), a shock from which her campaign never entirely recovered. She is determined to have a better result this year.

More than one Democratic strategist said Biden’s decision could be healthy for the party as a whole. Sanders abjures personal attacks and prefers to highlight policy differences. Had Biden launched a bid, he might have been forced to take a sharper-edged approach, given that he and Clinton advocate a similar brand of politics.

Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said “no one is happier” about Biden’s decision than Clinton — “and no one’s more secretly disappointed than Bernie Sanders.”

“Clinton already has in Sanders someone to needle her on policy. The last thing she needs is someone to go after her on character — and that was Biden’s only play.”

Republicans may also be sorry about Biden’s decision.

While GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus reacted to the Biden news by arguing that he would have been a more formidable candidate in the general election than Clinton, anything that makes the former first lady’s path to the nomination easier is bad news for the GOP.

Another seasoned Democratic strategist, Chris Lehane, said that people were now “unlikely to see the more contentious dynamic that exists in the Republican primary [in the Democratic race], which means the Democratic candidates largely control their own destinies.”

Still, some experts argued that Clinton should not take too much for granted just yet, given that Sanders has tapped into a reservoir of discontent within progressive ranks that is deeper than many people had expected.

“Yes, with Biden not in, people who share her philosophy of progressive pragmatism are more likely to ‘come home,’ ” said strategist Hilary Rosen. 

“But Bernie Sanders has a lot of fight in him — and a lot of money. This thing isn’t over.”