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Essential Politics: For Clinton, a week to savor

Since announcing her presidential campaign in the spring, Hillary Rodham Clinton has not had a two-week stretch as consistently good as she has just enjoyed.

A solid performance in the first Democratic candidates debate was followed by — and may have helped lead to — Vice President Joe Biden's decision not to run for the nomination. The decision removed a potentially significant rival from the race. Along the way, two other candidates, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, dropped out this week.

On Thursday, an 11-hour marathon hearing of the House Benghazi committee allowed Clinton to appear poised, confident and unflappable in front of a series of Republican inquisitors. Her testimony drew praise from Democratic activists and seemed likely to expand the number of Democratic voters who dismiss questions about Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of State as nothing but partisan sniping.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief, and welcome to the Friday edition of Essential Politics, where we review the week and highlight stories that go beyond the headlines to provide deeper insight into the presidential campaign.

A series of polls in the past several days, both nationally and in key states, have reinforced Clinton's image as the solid front-runner. She held her lead in Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, which is the state's leading survey. In New Hampshire, for the first time since July, Clinton led Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in two polls, although a third survey showed Sanders still holding a small lead.

On the Republican side, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, appears to be consolidating the support of evangelical Christians in Iowa, where that group makes up about four in 10 voters in the state's caucuses. Powered by that support, Carson has moved into the lead in Iowa. Elsewhere, however, Donald Trump remains the front-runner, and Republican voters increasingly appear to be viewing him as a plausible, even likely, nominee.

There's a lot more to the campaign than polls, of course. There's money. The entertainment industry has long been a huge source of cash for candidates, particularly on the Democratic side. So far this time around, Melanie Mason, Anthony Pesce and Maloy Moore found that Clinton is collecting nine in 10 dollars from Hollywood.

But who would give money to Trump? Turns out, nearly 74,000 people have. Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan tracked some of them down to ask why.

“Being a billionaire doesn’t mean you’re getting moral support,” said one donor, who likes Trump’s tough stand on illegal immigration. “I think if you’re getting $10, $15, $100 from people, it sends a nice message.”

Traditionally, candidates quit the race when they start running out of cash. But as Noah Bierman found, even for those who can't raise much and are mired at the bottom in the polls, dropping out is hard to do.

One of those candidate seemingly stuck near the bottom is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who at one point was seen as a potential major force in the Republican Party. In Iowa, Seema Mehta reports, Sen. Ted Cruz is making a play for voters that Paul would have wanted. And his approach may be working.

WHAT WE'RE READING

"Super-PACs" can collect unlimited funds from donors and can use that money to provide extensive support for the candidate of their choice. One thing they can't do is directly "coordinate" their efforts with the campaign. But nothing stops a super-PAC strategist from publicly describing his view of campaign strategy, effectively giving the campaign a view of his thinking.

That's precisely what Mike Murphy, the top strategist for Jeb Bush's Right to Rise PAC did in an extraordinarily detailed, two-part interview with Bloomberg reporter Sasha Issenberg. The interview provides a fascinating glimpse at the thinking of one of the Republican party's top political minds.

That wraps up this week. On Monday, my colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back with the daily newsletter. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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