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Eye On Candidates
October 14, 2015

Clinton Emerges Stronger From First Democratic Debate

The first debate among the Democratic candidates was held last night, and most press accounts seem to agree that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came out on top. A special version of the POLITICO Caucus (they normally weigh in on Friday) offers the following assessment:

Insiders: A runaway victory for Clinton

Hillary Clinton won — by a landslide.

Clinton was the clear winner of the first Democratic presidential debate, according to the assessment of both Democrats and Republicans in this week's POLITICO Caucus, our bipartisan survey of the top activists, operatives and strategists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Seventy-nine percent of Democratic insiders surveyed said she dominated her four opponents onstage. Fifty-four percent of Republicans said the same.

“Not even close,” an unaffiliated New Hampshire Democrat said. “Hillary crushed it tonight.”

“I think that everyone walked into this debate looking for her to make a mistake, and she didn't,” an Iowa Democrat said. “On top of that, [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders' lack of preparation showed, and [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O'Malley was trying too hard to look presidential to be effective.”

While the “winner” doesn’t seem to be much in doubt among the insiders, there seems to be a split in opinion on who lost:

Sanders, who has been threatening Clinton in the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, was less impressive onstage, insiders said. Only 8 percent of Democrats overall said he won the debate, tying with Martin O'Malley, who is far behind in the polls. And 20 percent of Democratic insiders said Sanders lost.

“Bernie had the most to lose tonight and didn't perform well on a debate stage compared to his usual fiery performances on the stump,” a South Carolina Democrat said.

The candidate who received the most votes for worst performance, however, was former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, with 35 percent of Democrats giving him that designation.

“Whined too much about time,” a New Hampshire Democrat said, a reference to Webb's frequent complaints about how little time he was allotted to speak. “Mr Webb and [former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln] Chafee should be out. The sooner the better.”

Over in The Washington Post the debate performances are discussed in more detail, including the suggestion that Clinton’s strong showing potentially making it less likely Vice President Joe Biden will enter the race:

Hillary Rodham Clinton was the only candidate on stage last night who looked like a plausible president. She had gravitas and filled the stage, while her four rivals came across as unelectable, unserious or both. In short, she solidified her status as the Democratic front-runner. Clinton’s strong performance will, at least temporarily, quiet doubts among party elites and make it less likely that Joe Biden enters the race….

Hillary’s tight hug of Obama means there is less room for Biden. Mindful of a possible bid by the vice president, Clinton clearly wanted to send a message that she will aggressively compete for the Obama coalition and continue to grab for the president’s mantle. “I would have to think this would give him some pause,” longtime Obama strategist David Axelrod said of Biden after the debate.

The Post also notes Sanders’ less-than-impressive performance:

Bernie Sanders spent most of the night on the defensive. Early on, he was caught off guard when Clinton ripped into him for his votes against the Brady bill and for granting immunity to gun manufacturers. After Sanders said it was a complicated issue, Clinton took off her velvet gloves to note that she opposed the same bill because there was nothing complicated about it for her. Gun control is one of the very few issues on which she can easily get to Bernie’s left, and she did so effectively. The Vermont independent sounded like just another politician as he explained, essentially, that political considerations prompted his vote.

Sanders grew irritated when pressed over various apostasies. He offered revisionist histories of congressional debates over both gun control and immigration reform, for which he will certainly take heat from fact checkers.

On foreign policy, Sanders was out of his depth and looked uncomfortable talking about why he dodged the Vietnam War draft.

“Overall, Sanders’s performance was uneven,” The Post’s Philip Rucker and John Wagner write on the Bernie dynamic. “At the start, he seemed easily bothered. At times on the defensive, Sanders seemed agitated, shouting his positions as if he were rallying thousands of supporters in a sports arena instead of conversing with four opponents on a debate stage. But he appeared to become more relaxed on stage and to relish his place as the outsider on the left.”

While Sanders may have had an uneven performance and failed to do much to advance his campaign, he certainly had a better night than the three Democrats at the bottom of the polls. The Post’s Chris Cillizza has an article identifying his winners and losers. He crowned both Clinton and Sanders as winners, noting of the Vermont senator:

If you were a Democrat who wanted to learn more about the Vermont socialist via the debate, he gave you plenty to like. Sanders is a true believer in liberal ideas, and you can feel his passion when you watch him.  His "I don't want to hear anymore about your damn e-mails" line to Clinton was, probably, the biggest applause line of the night and will be replayed roughly 1 billion times over the next 24-48 hours. In terms of pure interest -- as it relates to what people were searching for during the debate -- there's no question this was a good night for Sanders.

At the same time, Sanders showed that he is a somewhat limited candidate. He looked totally lost on foreign policy -- even when moderator Anderson Cooper teed him up a question on Russia and Vladimir Putin. Sanders is great when he is talking about economic inequality and climate change. When he is talking about anything else, he's sort of eh.

The remaining three candidates on stage last night didn’t fare as well in Cillizza’s estimation:

Martin O'Malley: The former governor of Maryland needed a moment in this debate to break out of the 1 percent crowd. He didn't get one. Oddly, O'Malley sounded the most like a politician of anyone on the stage even though he is the only one who has never spent any time in office in the nation's capitol.  O'Malley seemed overly low-key in the first hour of the debate. He never really seemed committed to attacking Clinton, even over his past comments about the presidency not being a crown handed back and forth between two families. It was a "blah" performance for someone who needed a lot more than that.

Lincoln Chafee: Holy cow. I had low expectations for the former Rhode Island governor going into the debate, but he managed to under-perform even those. His explanation for his vote in favor of Glass-Steagall -- it was right when he came to the Senate and every one deserves a "takeover" -- is one of the five worst debate answers I have ever heard. Chafee's explanation of his vote for the Patriot Act -- basically, everyone voted for it -- would have been terrible if he hadn't already bombed the Glass-Steagall question. A genuinely awful performance.

Webb didn’t even merit a mention in Cillizza’s review, which in itself suggests he was among the losers. At Bloomberg Politics, Mark Halperin graded all the candidates and gave Webb the lowest, a “D,” writing:

Intense and brooding. Had trouble getting in the mix or finding a resonant voice on issues, even in his foreign policy wheelhouse. Frequently expressed frustration about a lack of talk time, coming across as griping and grumpy. 

Clinton has had a rough summer, in large part due to the controversy surrounding her use of a private email system and the storage of classified information on non-government servers. While last night’s debate performance isn’t likely to influence opinions about her among Republicans and most independents, it’s fair to say she firmed up her position as Democratic frontrunner through a combination of her own strong debate skills and her opponents’ failure to seize the moment.