Clinton looked good in the debate — and presidential
© Getty

I almost didn't watch the debate. Stomach flu. But in the end, even illness couldn't stop me. Maybe it was my foggy attention span, but the one thing I couldn't stop thinking was: Damn, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSamantha Power's Herculean task: Turning a screw with a rubber screwdriver Beau Biden Foundation to deny lobbyist donations, make major donors public Whoopi Goldberg wears 'my vice president' shirt day after inauguration MORE looked good.

Call me superficial. But don't pretend that thousands of viewers, Democrats and Republicans alike, weren't thinking the same thing. And silently cheering. Or worrying that she's checked one weakness off of her list.


For a 67-year-old, been-around-the-block-a-few-dozen-times grandma, Clinton stole the show in the looks department at last night's Democratic debate. Sure, you say, her competition in the equivalent of the bathing suit component of what I'll call the "President America" competition was weak. But Clinton's over-scrutinized and oft-denounced appearance (cankles, inconsistent hairdos, weight gain, wrinkles) didn't make it for a slam dunk going onto the catwalk.

It's hard not to forget that she stood up against crouched-over, ear-cupping, caught-off-guard Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Amanda Gorman captures national interest after inauguration performance Woman who made Sanders's mittens says she's sold out MORE (I-Vt.), who veered into crazy-uncle territory one too many times. Although a lot smarter, he recalled to mind Admiral James Stockdale's mouth-gaping, head-shaking vice presidential debate appearance in '92.

Another opponent, one journalist tweeted, looked a bit like Grandpa from "The Munsters." One looked like a typical male politician with no flair or real substance except that he had killed a man. Her real competition in this category came from former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who exuded, from the first second, what one journalist called the "I'm so handsome" vibe.

Why are looks so important? Do we have to harken back to the Kennedy/Nixon debate where Nixon needed a wipe-down and the "Prince of the People" looked like he had stepped out of a GQ ad? Or the axiom that Americans vote for the person they feel most comfortable having in their living room for four years? Or the old actors' adage that the more energy and effervescence exuded on stage, the more likely for a better review, even if the performance itself is lackluster?

Of course, in the end, it wasn't just her looks or potty humor that set her apart. (I'm stumped why more Americans didn't find offensive her reference to women taking more time in the bathroom because they need to pull down their pants.) But in one poll, she was given the nod for the funniest contestant. Someone said it humanized her. That's a feat for the candidate who can't seem to find her non-robot-like footing in one-on-one TV interviews.

Yes, it was her knowledge of current affairs and strong debating tactics that won her the night. She pushed her gun control position, her "I've been a middle-class and underprivileged child champion since I've been in politics" stance, her "President Obama fought me, yet endorsed me" and her negotiation (hunting-down?) skills with the Chinese pronouncements. And all the while she communicated it with a commanding presence.

Sure, she got an assist from Sanders, who said that America was tired of hearing about her "damn emails" and wanted to talk about issues that mattered to them. To which, no doubt, she did mental backflips and silent "Oh yeah, it's my birthday" cheers.

While every other pundit is writing about her knowledge of the issues and her even-tempered grace under pressure, it's a fact: She sure looked presidential. And in this world of Kardashians and celebrity-ruling news cycles, that counts for something.

Ashburn is an award-winning Washington-based reporter and TV analyst covering media and politics.