Clinton deserves debate rave reviews, while Sanders has a ways to go

From the moment she walked on the stage, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE looked comfortable, at ease and happy to be there. Before she said a word, I said to myself, she looks good and seems younger. When she did speak, she was confident, clear and in no way stiff or scripted. There was no doubt that she was in her element. She deservers the rave reviews. She gave by far the best performance; no one else came close.

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) was his usual self. To his devoted followers, they got more of what they expected to hear. He serves a very useful purpose in his genuine passion for pointing out the excesses of capitalism. His repeated refrain about "the billionaire class" has definitely become part of the American lexicon.

It's a fact of political life that if you want to get elected, it surely helps to be likeable. On this score, Sanders has a long way to go. His manner and style don't endear him to voters — the constant shouting is irritating. An essential ingredient of a successful candidate is to expand your base, and nothing in Tuesday night's performance accomplished that.

CNN moderator Anderson Cooper's question about his electability was right on target. Sanders flubbed it badly. His invoking of Denmark as a model will be remembered, but not fondly. I can just see the "Saturday Night Live" skit this weekend. Sanders, if he wants to be nominated and be taken seriously, needs to do two things right away: First, he should register as a Democrat. Second, he should stop saying that he is a socialist.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) needed to make a good first impression; he failed. He was trying too hard. All these months campaigning and not getting traction affected him. In person, he can be funny and charming, but that did not come through. Originally, O'Malley thought he would be the alternative to Clinton. But as we all know now, Sanders assumed that role. O'Malley can go back to the early states and continue to organize and by dent of his work pull a few surprises.

Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) looked terribly out of place. His background is eclectic and impressive, but that did not make a difference. He projected an air of "I guess I have to do this — but I really don't want to." He's highly intelligent and well-versed in many subjects, but he doesn't like politics or being a politician and all that goes with it. He refuses to campaign or ask people for money. This inherent distaste for some of the essential components of a campaign are totally missing. I really don't see how he stays in the race.

Finally, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D-R.I.). Why is he even running? Does he have too much free time? Why didn't he bring up the major plank of his platform, that the U.S. should convert to the metric system? That surely would electrify his effort. Chafee should have stayed in the Republican Party and built up the moderate-to-liberal wing of the GOP. Then he would have been serving a useful purpose. Just like Webb, he refuses to campaign and actually meet and engage voters. As a result, his candidacy is invisible and so is he.

Looking at the stage on Tuesday night, I kept thinking of the Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" Let me join the chorus and say that Vice President Joe Biden's chances were severely damaged by Clinton's performance. Democratic voters are getting very tired of his Hamlet-like role. He better decide quickly, in or out. There is a great deal of affection for him, and the old Biden portrayal of gaffes and ridicule has gone away, but he needs to tell the American people where he is going and do it with grace and class.

Two issues stood out. First, O'Malley did score big with me on restoring Glass-Steagall. This would bring back the separation of banking into two distinct and separate categories. The commercial and investment roles would not be allowed to mix. President Bill Clinton pushed for the break-up in 1999 and many people feel this contributed heavily to the 2007-2008 economic disaster. (Hillary's defense of her husband's action was awfully weak.)

Second, Sanders's proposal to lift the cap of $118,000 on Social Security earnings. He's at his best when he injects the "fairness" issue into his outrage. He is absolutely right: Why should someone making $1 million a year pay the same tax as someone making $118,000? It makes no sense and is, on its face, terribly unfair. Here too, Hillary Clinton needs to be pushed on the issue and state her position.

I still repeat my line: I remind everyone that not one vote has been cast. But the first debate sure gave Hillary Clinton a major bounce and boost. She very well might lose the first two contests (Iowa and even more likely, New Hampshire), but she came out of the gate very strong.

One last point. Sanders's fundraising totals are worthy of huge praise: more than 1 million donations, with an average of $25. No super-PAC, by his own insistence.

There will be more debates. There will be caucuses and primaries. It's a long haul and the story is in no way over. Surprising things can happen; new candidates can jump in and complicate the mix. The journey to the nomination is never orderly and linear. That's what makes the race interesting and exciting to watch.

All we can do is comment on the moment. Predictions are foolish and unwise. Let's just enjoy the journey.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.