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At Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton plays to her strengths, Bernie Sanders to his base

At Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton plays to her strengths, Bernie Sanders to his base
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the first Democratic presidential debate, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont may be Hillary Rodham Clinton's leading opponent, but for much of this year, the former secretary of State's biggest challenge has been herself.

Headlines about her use of a private email server while running the State Department put her on the defensive. Her defensiveness reminded many voters about their qualms over her truthfulness. Those voter qualms gave many Democratic activists and donors the jitters.

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As Tuesday night's debate began, Clinton quickly sought to break out of that vicious cycle and turn the spotlight to her strengths, not her weaknesses. And after a summer in which she seldom seemed able to keep the focus where she wanted it, the debate largely seemed to go her way.

In news conferences and interviews, she has often displayed a clenched jaw. In the debate, she was all smiles. With nods to time spent in the White House Situation Room and crisp answers about five-point plans, she exuded a sense of command that her rivals onstage often seemed to lack. And in sharp contrast with her reticence on the subject during the 2008 campaign, she repeatedly reminded viewers that with her, they could make history: After the U.S. elected its first black president, it now had a chance to elect its first woman.

The Times' Cathleen Decker and Mark Z. Barabak break down the highs and lows of the first Democratic presidential debate.

For Sanders, by contrast, the debate probably reinforced an image as a political figure who is not afraid to take positions that lie outside the perceived mainstream. For many viewers, Tuesday night was probably their first sustained exposure to the independent Vermont senator. While his repeated calls for political "revolution" and suggestions that the U.S. should look to Denmark for answers to social policy problems may have thrilled his followers on the party's left, they seemed unlikely to expand his support beyond the college-educated white liberals who have flocked to his rallies.

Debates are about contrasts, and Clinton, Sanders and the other three Democrats on the stage offered several on issues both large and small. But the session also served as a reminder of the relative unity that Democrats have enjoyed through most of President Obama's tenure in office. It's a unity that is particularly striking at a time when the Republican Party struggles, both on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress, to find a way to bridge fundamental divisions.

For Clinton, the key moment — and the one that seems destined to be the debate's most replayed — came when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper pressed her on the email issue. Avoiding the defensive crouch, Clinton admitted that using a private email server as she conducted public business had been "a mistake."

"What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn't the best choice," she said, then quickly pivoted to an attack on Republicans that drew cheers from the crowd in the hall.

Republicans had spent $4.5 million in taxpayer funds on an investigative committee in Congress that was acting as an "arm of the Republican National Committee," she said. "It is a partisan vehicle" designed to "drive down my poll numbers," she added, citing a statement made recently by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

"That's what they have attempted to do," she said. "I am still standing."

A moment later, Sanders endorsed Clinton's stance.

"Let me say something that may not be great politics," he said. "I think the secretary is right. … The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails." As the two shook hands the audience roared its approval.

It was, to be sure, a partisan crowd. An exchange like that will by no means reduce the intensity of Republican dislike for Clinton. Nor will it necessarily win over the relatively small number of voters who remain undecided about her after a generation in the public eye.

But for Clinton, winning over those voters is a problem for the future. Her more immediate challenge has been to quiet the worries among Democrats about whether she could respond to attacks without alienating voters. The cheers were partisan, but partisans are the voters Clinton largely needs to impress for the next several months.

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Clinton's secondary goal was to drive home contrasts between herself and Sanders. On that point, too, the Vermont senator gave her a considerable boost.

By citing Denmark as an example for social policy and defending his self-definition as a socialist, Sanders gave Clinton an easy opening to portray herself as a champion of American capitalism, just one who wants to "rein in the excesses." By maintaining his skepticism about certain gun control measures, he allowed her to depict herself as a stronger opponent of the National Rifle Assn. And by insisting that he would oppose any sort of "no fly" zone over Syria, he allowed her to paint herself as tougher on international issues.

To seriously challenge Clinton in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, where the electorates are overwhelmingly white, Sanders needs to broaden his appeal to the minority voters and moderates among whom Clinton currently holds a strong lead. He may yet do that, but except for a few remarks critical of the criminal justice system and supportive of immigration reform, the debate showed little indication that Sanders has a plan to reach beyond his core base of support.

There was one other key audience for Tuesday's debate — the man for whom CNN had saved an extra lectern, Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton and her campaign aides have been careful to avoid saying or doing anything to indicate impatience with Biden's on-again, off-again flirtation with entering the race. But they clearly understood that a weak debate on the part of Clinton would dramatically ratchet up the pressure on Biden to go ahead.

That didn't happen. Biden's window for entering the race has seemed to be closing in recent days, as Clinton's campaign appeared to stabilize after several bad weeks. Last month, in an interview with a Catholic magazine, Biden said he understood that the time to decide on a presidential bid might run out before he could make up his mind. Tuesday's debate seemed to make that prediction more prescient.

Twitter: @davidlauter

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