Hillary Clinton arrived in Las Vegas as the overwhelming front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and she was destined to leave as the favorite, too. Instead of turning in the safe and solid performance she needed, though, Clinton was closer to spectacular on Tuesday night.
She was confident early and poised throughout. More surprisingly—and perhaps more importantly—she also drew first blood on Bernie Sanders, who was put on the defensive early when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper pressed him to explain the biggest blemish on his otherwise progressive resume: His 2005 vote to shield gun makers and dealers from lawsuits. With Sanders struggling, Cooper turned to Clinton to ask if her rival is “tough enough on guns.” Hillary, who earlier this month cleverly made repealing that same law a centerpiece of her gun reform proposal, didn’t hesitate. “No,” she said, “not at all.” Toward the end of the debate she was even able to put some focus on the historic nature of her candidacy and to take some shots at the GOP, two themes that would certainly be central to any general election campaign.
Bernie had his own strong moments during the debate, but he never quite recovered from his early stumble—particularly in front of a boisterous Democratic crowd that seemed to favor his establishment rival. Hillary’s lesser-known challengers, meanwhile, struggled to keep their sights set squarely on Clinton: Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley went after Sanders, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee took a shot at former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and Webb spent way too much of his limited speaking time complaining … about his limited speaking time.
Clinton, meanwhile, stayed on message and found her way out of one close jam after another, including an opening grilling from Cooper about a slew of reversals on topics ranging from marriage equality to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The question of political expediency versus principle is a rather tough one for Clinton—and she played fast and loose with the facts when explaining how she came to oppose the trade deal she once called the “gold standard of trade deals”—but her response played well in the room nonetheless. “Are you a progressive or a moderate,” Cooper eventually asked. “I’m a progressive—but I like to get things done,” Clinton answered to cheers. This was the central message of the entire night for the former secretary of state, and it came through loud and clear.
Later, Clinton found herself back in the middle of the Iraq war, taking shots from her rivals for her 2002 vote to authorize the war, much as she did back in her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama—something Hillary smoothly used to her advantage. “I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then–Sen. Obama debating this very issue,” Clinton responded calmly. “After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state.” Likewise, she dispatched O’Malley’s suggestion that she was too quick to use military force with a similar callback. “I have to say, I was very pleased when Gov. O’Malley endorsed me for president in 2008,” she said, “and I enjoyed his strong support in that campaign.”
Clinton’s jujitsu wasn’t relegated to questions about her past. Clinton’s partisan witch-hunt–themed response to questions about her email scandal was nothing we haven’t heard from her before—but the response to her strong delivery suggested that Democratic voters are willing to forgive and forget. Not only did she draw boisterous cheers from the crowd with her tried-if-not-completely-true defense, she even had Sanders coming to her aid.
“I think the secretary is right,” Bernie interjected, “and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” When your biggest rival is deflecting questions about your biggest weakness for you, you know the evening has been a success.