A Nuanced Stage Fight With Several Palpable Hits

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.06.45 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN  Wednesday, October 14, 2015

 

Good Wednesday morning. Democrats followed their Republican counterpartsdebates with their first of the election season, pitting the previously presumed front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton against the crowd-drawing upstart Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the implied threat of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. But for Mrs. Clinton, it was a good fight.

It was the best day of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

After months of news media focus on Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state — and little by way of a cohesive message from the candidate to combat those questions — she was widely praised for her performance in the party’s first debate on Tuesday night.

In a debate that was wonkier, more nuanced and less bombastic than the two prime-time Republican face-offs, Mrs. Clinton didn’t shy away from challenging Mr. Sanders, her main opponent. And after two hours, it was difficult to discern how much of an opening remains for Mr. Biden to enter the race.

Mrs. Clinton seemed loose but energetic, poised but not overly polished, as she faced three questions out of the gate about her changes in positions on issues over the years and what it said about her character.
She dominated Mr. Sanders in an exchange about gun control, an issue where his record has prompted skepticism among some Democrats. She was the only person to raise the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood, to great applause.
She fluidly turned questions about her vote authorizing military force in Iraq, a move that helped cost her the presidential nomination in 2008. The debate moved on after that, in the clearest indication yet that the Democratic Party has as well. And she talked proudly about serving under President Obama.
Areas of weakness were her positions on Wall Street excesses, which will be raised down the road. Her remark about not having taken a position on the Keystone XL pipeline until her statements last week — belatedly, and to some criticism for that delay — was not well delivered.
Mr. Sanders’s struggles explaining his position on guns — he mentioned that he comes from a rural state — will linger. So will his absolution of Mrs. Clinton on the emails issue: Her broadest smile came when he said people should let go of the “damn emails.” The two shook hands, as Mr. Sanders essentially took the issue off the table for himself.
Mr. Sanders needed to convince people that he is presidential, a bar he appeared to have trouble clearing. But the audience for this debate is deeply liberal, and Mr. Sanders is unlikely to lose support. Mr. Sanders, who is seen by some as a candidate with limited appeal, remained true to himself, repeatedly describing himself as a “Democratic socialist” and talking about a “political revolution.”
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, performed effectively, although, like the others, he seemed reluctant to hit Mrs. Clinton too hard. He and Mrs. Clinton made Mr. Sanders seem uncertain as they jointly piled on him over gun control. Though he did not have a major breakout moment, Mr. O’Malley seems to have positioned himself to get another look. The presences of Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb were barely felt.
Mr. Biden, whose aides said was watching the debate from his residence at the Naval Observatory, will soon be making his decision. His candidacy was always going to be predicated on a flagging Mrs. Clinton – there was less evidence of that on Tuesday night.