LAS VEGAS – Vice President Joe Biden may have seen his 2016 window close Tuesday night as Hillary Clinton solidified her grip on the top spot in the Democratic field during a compelling first presidential debate here.
If anybody thought Biden was waiting for Clinton to show serious vulnerability, she easily eliminated that concern. With her experienced, commanding and occasionally pointed style, she moved aggressively against top rival Bernie Sanders out of the gate, and made a case for herself and her ideas with an effectiveness that no candidate on the stage could match.
The dynamic of the race did not fundamentally change as Sanders and Clinton staked out their respective turf and demonstrated that they were prepared to defend it, leaving little room for the other three candidates on stage. If anything, the debate widened the gap between the top tier and the rest.
Here are eight takeaways from the night:
1.) Clinton reasserted herself as the strongest candidate in the Democratic field, living up to sky-high expectations and clearly demonstrating why she has almost cleared the field of primary opponents.
Her campaign struggled through the summer, but many Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief after their party’s most likely standard-bearer showed why so much of the party’s leadership has already rallied behind her. Was she the star of the debate? “She was the next president,” Clinton communications director Jenn Palmieri told reporters.
2.) Sanders proved he is a worthy challenger, capable of going toe-to-toe with Clinton on the biggest stage he’s ever been on and delivering the night’s brightest moment when he declared that Americans are tired of talking about Clinton’s emails.
There were moments he seemed out of his depth, especially on foreign policy, but he displayed the intensity and showcased a message that has attracted tens of thousands of diehard fans to rallies across the country. He consolidated the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and showed he will be a forceful advocate for it.
3.) The seal was broken on conflict in the Democratic primary. While Republicans have been pummeling each other on a daily basis, Democrats have been almost allergic to confront each other directly. But with early exchanges over capitalism and guns in Las Vegas, more fireworks will come soon.
4.) Martin O’Malley was solid, but was it enough? When the former Maryland governor announced his candidacy, he did not expect to enter his first debate at 1% in the polls. He has failed to catch any breaks and needed a strong performance Tuesday night to break through. This was probably not it.
He raised expectations even higher by staking his campaign on a call for debates. A strong exchange with Sanders on guns and an otherwise mistake-free performance are unlikely to fundamentally change his trajectory.
5.) Webb had a strong night, but is running in the wrong year. The former Virginia senator has barely campaigned, but he introduced himself with a compelling biography and spoke authoritatively. Data from Twitter showed it was Webb, not O’Malley, who was the most talked about candidate after Clinton and Sanders. And unlike O’Malley, he has a clear lane in the field: More conservative, more “traditional” (whiter), more rural voters who have left the Democratic Party.
But his eagerness to defend positions out of step with today’s Democratic positions – anti-affirmation action, pro-guns, pro-fossil fuels, to name a few – show why Webb may have been a better candidate for 1995 than 2015.
6.) The Democratic Party is ready for a debate on guns. The issue was by far the most contentious of the night, with Clinton and O’Malley ganging up on Sanders over his vote against the Brady handgun bill in Congress. It allowed Clinton and and O’Malley to go after Sanders from the left, and it was where O’Malley’s campaign felt he shined brightest.
7.) Fifteen years later, the Iraq war remains an issue for Clinton. When Clinton last ran for president in 2007, there was only one person on stage with her could who could say they voted against the Iraq War – former Rep. Dennis Kucinich. On Tuesday night, all of her rivals opposed it and were eager to make Clinton pay – again – for her vote in favor of it.
Clinton’s new answer was to tie herself to President Obama. “I remember being on a debate stage about eight years ago 25 times with Sen. Obama debating this issue,” she said. “Afterwards, he asked me to be his Secretary of State. He valued my judgment.” It remains to be seen if that quiets critics.
8.) Clinton’s emails are a dead issue among Democrats, and Clinton has Sanders to thank for it. Sanders seemed to speak for Democrats everywhere – or at least the 1,300 in the debate hall who cheered – when he said, “the American people are tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
The line stopped CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper’s line of questioning dead in its track and will make it difficult for Sanders or any other Democrat to attack Clinton directly on the issue in the future, even as the media and Republicans press on.