After months of giddily watching Hillary Clinton stumble through her campaign launch, Republicans are suddenly confronting something new: a Democratic front-runner with momentum.
Clinton’s widely praised performance in Tuesday’s Democratic debate was the exclamation point capping a rare week of favorable news for the candidate, who has been plagued throughout the year by the twin challenges of an e-mail scandal and an energetic challenge from Bernie Sanders on her left. Some 15 million viewers tuned in for the event, 50% more than the previous record for a Democratic debate set by Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.
Her strong showing — and its attendant attention in the press – came not long after Congressman Kevin McCarthy linked the House’s Benghazi investigation to Clinton’s poll numbers. He withdrew his bid for speaker amid backlash for the remarks. In addition, a staffer for the select committee on Benghazi has since popped up claiming he was fired for objecting to its focus on Clinton, prompting the committee to accuse him of airing a phony dispute to settle scores over his poor performance. Clinton is set to testify before the committee on Oct. 22 and suddenly has an edge heading into what’s sure to be a contentious grill session.
Even one of her Republican rivals had nice things to say — and he’s not known for saying nice things. “Like her or not, she did her job,” Trump told MSNBC's "Morning Joe," before telling NBC News later that she’d be a “formidable” debating opponent.
In another surprising move, Trump focused his fire not on Clinton the next morning, but on Bernie Sanders. After praising Sanders for his similar take on trade earlier in the week, Trump released an Instagram video of Black Lives Matter protesters interrupting a Sanders speech as evidence he is not “a tough, strong leader.”
The Republican field has emphasized bashing Obama at least as much as Clinton, if not more, but Clinton’s performance could put a bigger spotlight on how the candidates might match up individually.
"You end up with a situation where Republicans say, which one of these guys can cut her head off?” GOP strategist Rick Wilson told MSNBC. “Which one of these guys can knock her flat? The value of a strong debater will emerge as a singular consideration.”
Sure enough, Republican contenders made a point of playing up their potential against Clinton on Wednesday.
Rubio responded to the debate by emailing to supporters a claim from Ed Klein — the conservative author notorious for producing “inside” scoops on Clinton that don’t pass a laugh test — that Bill Clinton thinks Rubio would be the former secretary of state’s toughest foil.
“I think the biggest threat to her candidacy is her outdated ideas,” Rubio said on Fox News on Wednesday. “If you watched that debate last night, it looked like something from the early '80s. It was basically a liberal versus liberal debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff.”
Dr. Ben Carson’s campaign took to Twitter to point out a recent Fox News poll showing him with an 11-point lead in a general election match-up — by far the best of any Republican tested. A spokesman for Carly Fiorina emailed MSNBC to highlight an October NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showing Fiorina up 14 points over Clinton in Iowa, also the best among Republicans named in the survey.
Conservative commentators, while mostly crediting Clinton with a solid debate, generally downplayed its significance in a general election. As several pointed out, she faced virtually no pushback from her rivals on her use of a private e-mail server — Sanders even declared “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
“I would have taken her to task for that, and if she wins the nomination and if I win the nomination, trust me, this is not going to end,” Jeb Bush said on Fox on Wednesday.
Citizens United President David Bossie, a longtime Clinton opponent, also stressed the gulf between Clinton’s sparring partners on Tuesday and the Republican members of Congress who will conduct this month’s hearing.
“For Hillary, having a decent debate night is not difficult when your opponents make Mike Dukakis look strong,” Bossies said in an e-mail. “Unlike other public appearances where Hillary can spin the argument in her favor, Secretary Clinton should be reminded that next week’s hearing is under oath.”
While Clinton’s performance bought her a rare respite in the press and helped quiet for now the chatter around a possible bid by Joe Biden, not all Republican strategists were sold on the idea that she helped herself with regards to Sanders. Some pointed to focus groups by CNN and a separate focus group by Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz that showed Sanders performing well. Others highlighted online metrics, which showed the self-described Democratic socialist generating more buzz on social media — although this could reflect his younger and more tech-savvy following. Given his comparative lack of press attention and name recognition, Sanders may have had more to gain from a decent debate even if Clinton did outperform him.
“When you have a focus group saying it’s a 50-50 split in terms of who they’d vote for between Hillary Clinton and a guy who was asked about having honeymooned in the Soviet Union, I don’t think that demonstrates Clinton won this thing,” Liz Mair, a Republican consultant, told MSNBC.
Others also saw an opportunity to use individual answers from Clinton to drag her down later.
“I look at it as chock full of material for general election ad-makers, so it was great for us,” Republican pollster Adrian Gray said in a phone interview.
An example Gray and several Republicans who spoke to MSNBC raised in particular was one of Clinton's answers towards the end of the debate: She named the GOP as the “enemy” she was most proud to have gained. It brought down the house with a Democratic audience, but it could feed the notion that she’ll be too divisive in a general election.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has pitched himself as the most conciliatory Republican candidate, unloaded on Clinton over the remark in a town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday. He mentioned it in a fundraising email to supporters as well.
“She bragged that she made enemies of Republicans? Is that where this country is going?” Kasich said at the town hall. “I got to tell you, that is a disgrace. That is a D-I-S-G-R-A-C-E, got it?”
Whatever method of attack they choose, Tuesday’s event was a reminder to Republicans that Clinton is still a seasoned candidate who battled a future president in debate after debate less than eight years ago. Their nominee will underestimate her at their own peril.