Clinton bolsters frontrunner status in Democratic race
Second-time candidate gives polished performance, outshining Sanders in first debate
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton share a joke in Tuesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The first debate in the race to win the US Democratic presidential nomination confirmed two things: that Hillary Clinton is the strongest candidate and that the entry of Joe Biden into the race is a bigger risk for the vice-president than for the former first lady.
Clinton put in such an assured, commanding performance in the CNN-hosted debate in a Las Vegas that it will make the already difficult decision Biden is mulling even more of a dilemma. She showed her experience as a skilled debater, tackling head-on concerns among grassroots Democrats that she is taking liberal positions just to get elected. She also showed a warmer, personable and passionate side.
Although five candidates shared the stage, the most closely watched face-off was the contest between Clinton and her closest rival, socialist senator Bernie Sanders. His populist message has pushed him ahead of Clinton in the early-voting primary state of New Hampshire and closed her lead in Iowa, the first ballot to pick candidates in the 2016 election.
On Clinton’s most vulnerable flank – her use of a private email server as Barack Obama’s first secretary of state, which has hurt her campaign for months – she scored the biggest point of Tuesday night’s debate, finding a surprise ally in Sanders.
Clinton again admitted her use of a private email was “a mistake” but the independent senator from Vermont jumped in and rescued Clinton from an imbroglio that she is struggling to shake off.
The remark delighted his rival. “Thank you! Me too! Me too!” she said, smiling and reaching out to shake the 74-year-old senator’s hand.
His generous gesture left the impression that perhaps his mission in the campaign is to push the debate in the Democratic Party to the left rather than winning the party’s nomination.
Clinton came off the Las Vegas stage after a scrappy debate as the most electable candidate. She was polished and very well prepared, ticking the boxes she had to tick.
Sanders appeared frustrated, flustered and far too defensive at times, the cool medium of television not playing well for a politician whose hot oratory style electrifies die-hard progressives at large rallies.
He struggled most when questioned about foreign policy and his voting record on gun control, taking fire from Clinton and O’Malley.
O’Malley deftly handled a question from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper about whether his policing policies as Baltimore mayor contributed to the city’s recent racial violence, but it’s unclear whether he clocked a “breakout” moment to rise above his low-polling position.
The debate, which was watched by 15.3 million viewers (10 million fewer than the first Republican debate) was mostly the Clinton-versus-Sanders show. They dominated the speaking times and had the sharpest exchanges.
Her response to the charge of being a flip-flopper on same-sex marriage and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will not have won over many of Sanders’s supporters who back the life-long socialist.
“I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world,” she said.
She was more effective at portraying herself as a pragmatic progressive, rather than a socialist ideologue – a swipe at Sanders and the criticism that his policies have little chance of becoming law.
“I’m a progressive who likes to get things done . . . I know how to find common ground and to stand my ground,” she said.
They clashed on capitalism. Explaining the benefits of “democratic socialism”, Sanders said he did not consider himself a “casino capitalist” and that he admired the Swedish and Danish economies. Clinton responded that it would be “making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what made the greatest middle class in the world”.
The other notable “takeaway” from the debate was that the Democrats were more focused on arguing the issues rather than trading personal barbs, unlike the first two Republican debates.
Clinton certainly appeared to be looking beyond the primary towards the bigger fight for the presidency with a Republican. In a question asked of all candidates about the enemy they are most proud of, Clinton was the only one whose answer included “the Republicans”.
“Hillary was the winner,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “She solidified her frontrunner status in the race. Bernie may have been a little bit shaky and maybe that will allow O’Malley into the race.”
One man who will have further pause for thought about joining the race after seeing a formidable Clinton is the vice-president.
“Biden is really depending on Clinton collapsing and last night told me that it is not happening now and it may not happen,” said Bannon.