Hillary Clinton reminded voters Tuesday — in case any of them had forgotten — why she is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton delivered a more polished and robust performance in the first 2016 primary debate than any of her four rivals on stage — aided, as it turned out, by her fiercest competitor, Bernie Sanders.
Sanders blunted the strongest line of questioning against Clinton, over her use of private email as U.S. secretary of state.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders, an independent Vermont senator, said when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper gave him an opening to attack. “But I think the secretary is right.
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“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
The answer saved Clinton. But it was, after all, great politics for Sanders. The debate hall at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel, packed with 1,300 people, rocked with the most sustained applause of the night.
“Thank you, Bernie,” Clinton said, reaching over to shake her opponent’s hand.
The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
The debate exposed other soft spots for Clinton, including her more moderate support of Wall Street bank regulations and her past support for the unpopular Iraq war. Her comeback? “After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state,” she said of President Barack Obama, a war opponent. “He valued my judgment.”
Clinton was forced to defend her opposition to an Obama administration trade deal in Asia she once referred to as the “gold standard.” Upon final review, she argued, the agreement didn’t meet her expectations. When asked about the Keystone XL oil pipeline — a project overseen by her state department — Clinton emphasized she hadn’t weighed in on its merits until recently.
“I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone,” she said, not very artfully. Though last month she said she would "plead guilty" to being called a moderate, she insisted Tuesday she is more liberal: "I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done."
Switching positions over time is not unheard of, Clinton said — using the kind of explanation a potential Republican rival like Marco Rubio, running on a platform of generational change, could easily drop in a television attack ad: “We’ve been around a cumulative –— quite some period of time.”
Still, Clinton appeared sharp and prepared, and even seemed to enjoy herself. After a commercial break, when Cooper made reference to a candidate almost not making it back to the stage in time, Clinton cracked a ladies’ room joke: “It does take me a little longer.”
Her most potent charge against Sanders came after Cooper asked her whether his moderate positions went far enough. “No,” she said. “Not at all.”
Then Clinton hammered Sanders some more: “We lose 90 people a day from gun violence,” she said. “This has gone on too long, and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president. I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Sanders said the National Rifle Association had given him a “D-minus” rating, but he seemed to have been caught a little flat-footed in his response.
“As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton: that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing.”
Clinton made sure to note the historic nature of her candidacy — much as she did when she lost in 2008, after 25 primary debates in which she honed her skills.
“I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president,” Clinton said. “I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground.”
Sanders, a Democratic socialist who has yet to make inroads with minority voters that form much of the national Democratic base, didn't tone down his populist message to appeal to a broader television audience. He summarized his insurgent campaign as the only one that would take on the establishment, including Clinton: “I am the only candidate for president who is not a billionaire,” he said.
Alas, a Republican primary debate it was not. Without Donald Trump or 11 candidates on stage, the two-hour exchange had less dramatic flair than the GOP has provided viewers this year. Trump, as promised, offered running Twitter commentary, though much of it was forwarding posts by his ardent followers.
“Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!” he opined. His name was invoked for the first time by Sanders, who mentioned “Donald Trump and his billionaire friends.”
Several times, the Democrats gloated that theirs was not the GOP campaign, with its nastiness, but rather a more substantive discussion from candidates more welcoming of black and Hispanic minorities. The feisty exchange fueled critics within the Democratic Party who want more than the six total debates approved by chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Weston congressman said the number remains the same.
Three candidates polling so low they would not have made a Republican debate cutoff joined Clinton and Sanders on stage: former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. None had the kind of viral Internet moment that might jump-start their candidacies.
Three times, Webb complained about not getting enough speaking time. At one point, Chafee defended a vote when he was a Republican senator by saying he was new to the chamber and his father had recently died.
O’Malley stood out more among the three, but Clinton made sure to note: “I am very pleased when Gov. O’Malley endorsed me in 2008. I consider him, obviously, a friend.”
“I was proud to support you eight years ago, but something happened in between,” O’Malley eventually fired back, a while later, referring to “the Wall Street crash.”
No one stressed the name of another Democrat who could enter the race: Vice President Joe Biden. He didn’t show up in Vegas at the last minute — though CNN made it abundantly clear that he would have a spot on the stage if he did — but planned to watch from his Washington home at the Naval Observatory.
President Obama, on the other hand, whose name was invoked repeatedly, mostly with praise, didn’t make the same viewership commitment, given the Major League Baseball playoffs.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the president catches part of the debate tonight,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “I don’t think that he will watch it wire to wire. There is some pretty good playoff baseball on tonight, so I would anticipate that he may be doing a little channel-surfing.”
McClatchy White House Correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.