Hillary Clinton emerged from the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night having given no ground to Bernie Sanders or her lesser-known rivals, a strong performance that was punctuated when even Sanders came to her defense over the email controversy that has often buffeted her campaign.
“I’ve taken responsibility for it. I did say it was a mistake,” Clinton said of her use of a personal email server during her time as Secretary of State. “I have been as transparent as I know to be.”
Sanders, in a made-for-TV moment that took place not long after the two had tangled on gun control and economic issues, defended her: “Let me say something that may not be great politics, that is the Secretary is right. The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
As the audience at the Wynn Las Vegas resort-casino here rose for a standing ovation, Clinton said with a laugh: “Thank you, Bernie!”
It was a high moment of the night for Clinton but not her only one. Eager to assuage nervous supporters in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge from Sanders, Clinton defended herself against charges of flip-flopping, drew sharp differences between herself and Sanders on a small set of key issues, and generally controlled the flow of the debate.
She mostly ignored her lesser-known rivals: Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. When Chafee knocked her on the email issue and Clinton was asked if she wanted to respond, she said simply, “no.” But when asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper whether Sanders has done enough to combat gun violence, Clinton answered forcefully. “No,” she said. “Not at all. We have to look at the 90 people we lose a day from gun violence.”
“The majority of our country supports background checks,” she added. “Even a majority of gun owners do. … Senator Sanders votes against the Brady Bill five times.” She also strongly criticized Sanders for voting in favor of legislation that shielded the gun industry from legal liability, saying she voted against it. “It wasn’t that complicated to me,” Clinton said.
Sanders, meanwhile, mostly leaned on his usual stump speech talking points early, and he often dodged questions about his viability, as a self-identified Democratic socialist, in a general election. He declined to say he is a capitalist when asked directly by Cooper. “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little?” he responded. “By which Wall Street greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No I don’t.” He then said he admired the economies of Sweden and Denmark.
Clinton jumped in, saying: “When I think about capitalism I think about all the business that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom to do just that.” She praised the opportunity and strong middle class afforded by the American capitalist system.
“We are not Denmark,” she said. “I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
All of the candidates and their campaigns approached the debate as an introduction of sorts. Americans already knew Hillary Clinton, the front-runner of the pack, but her campaign believed she deserved a big stage after months of her poll numbers withering under the email controversy. And for Sanders, O’Malley, Chafee and Webb, it was a rare chance to impress a national audience.
For Clinton, the key was to cut through months of noise about her emails and trustworthiness, and present herself just as campaign bills her: the concerned fighter who will work hard for everyday Americans. “She came into the race with universally high favorability ratings among Democrats, and then she had a rough summer,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “This is an opportunity for her to remind people what they liked and still like about her.”
It is a motley crew of Democrats. Sanders was not a Democrat until five months ago. Webb is a Vietnam War veteran and one-term senator who has been almost entirely absent from the campaign trail. Chafee is a mild-mannered former Republican who left his governorship in Rhode Island after one term with a 26% approval rating. O’Malley is an accomplished politician who has been laying the groundwork for his presidential run for years but languishes at close to zero in the polls.