LAS VEGAS – They successfully defended their positions atop the Democratic field in Tuesday night’s debate, but now the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are eager to capitalize on their strong performances.
For Clinton’s campaign, that means using the debate as the tent pole in a month that could turn around the trajectory of her campaign, with a key hearing before the House Benghazi committee scheduled next week.
Meanwhile, Sanders advisers say their candidate’s performance on the biggest stage of his career will help give him the credibility and license to reach out to new audiences, beginning with an appearance on "Ellen" Wednesday afternoon.
Clinton aides were practically giddy as they spilled out onto the casino floor from the debate hall late Tuesday night, knowing their candidate surpassed expectations. And a surprise assist from Sanders on the email controversy that has dogged her campaign could not have been better timed.
“It was the best day of the campaign thus far,” said one Clinton aide, who has lived through more bad days than good ones of late. Former President Bill Clinton was almost at a loss for words: “Wow wow wow,” read the subject line of a fundraising email sent under his name the next morning.
October was always going to be a make-or-break month for Clinton, chock full of major events. Clinton’s debate night momentum could propel her to a finish strong at the congressional hearing and then a key Iowa Democratic Party event, where Barack Obama emerged as a real challenge to her in 2007.
Edgy Democratic politicians and donors are breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday, after finally seeing the Hillary Clinton for whom they essentially cleared the field. The campaign has already released a video and is looking for more ways to take advantage of positive buzz from the debate.
But the most immediately apparent lasting consequence for Clinton could be on the email issue, with Sanders’ decision to absolve Clinton of sin and dealing the controversy its third successive body blow of the month.
First there was House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's apparent acknowledgment that the Bengazi committee had political motives; then came a whistleblower who alleges the committee was too focused on tearing Clinton down; and now Sanders essentially removed the issue from the Democratic primary race.
Clinton will head into her much-hyped congressional testimony next Thursday stronger than anyone could have imagined.
But there’s a risk of overconfidence for Clinton. She knows knows better than anyone that one tiny moment can unravel an otherwise strong performance. And instead of facing off against fellow Democrats for two hours, she’ll be up against Republican lawmakers for a session likely to stretch all day.
Meanwhile, Sanders aides are also claiming victory, after raising more than $1.3 million in just four hours Tuesday night. Top strategist Tad Devine told MSNBC that the debate reminded him of a 2007 Clinton-Obama face-off, when pundits declared Clinton the winner but voters said otherwise.
He cited a focus group of Iowa Democrat conducted by strategist Chris Kofinis of Park Street Strategies, where 22 members said Sanders won and 17 picked Clinton. A Facebook poll sponsored by CNN found 75% thought Sanders won.
Sanders’ campaign strategy is incredibly simple right now, Devine explained: They believe Sanders' message is so strong, the goal is just to put him and his message in front of as many people as possible.
They did that Tuesday night with a debate that reached more than 15 million viewers and will continue to Wednesday on “Ellen." “I don’t know if he’ll dance as well as he delivered a soundbite last night,” Devine quipped.
“We’re not going to be changed by what happened last night, we’re going to be enhanced by what happened last night,” he added. “It’s going to make him a lot easier to walk into a room of people who don’t already support him and deliver his message.”
Some analysts have questioned the shrewdness of Sanders' standout moment from the debate, when he called for a truce on Clinton’s emails, but Devine said it was the right move. "We recognize that if we’re going to win this thing, we’re either going to have to win people who are voting for Hillary Clinton today or people are considering voting for her,” he said.
Sometime before Thanksgiving, they'll start running television ads, but the Sanders campaign feels there is plenty more juice to squeeze from so-called earned media appearances before they have to start paying for airtime.