Experience pays for battle vet Clinton
Front- runner has answers ready for rivals’ criticisms
Hillary Clinton has done this before. And it showed.
After a damaging summer, the Democratic front- runner moved to regain her footing Tuesday night at the first Democratic debate, putting challenger Bernie Sanders on the defensive over his positions on gun control and his ability to get things done. She aggressively turned back criticism over her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq by noting it had been a chief attack by rival Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign — and that he then asked her to serve as his secretary of State.
Her critics did their best to revive the issue, and others. Sanders called the Iraq invasion as “the worst foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history,” and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley said the 2002 vote to approve it worried Americans even now because “people feel like a lot of our legislators got railroaded.”
Clinton had a parry ready. “I was very pleased when Gov. O’Malley endorsed me in 2008,” she replied to laughter.
There was no sassy undercard debate before themain event. No crowd of contenders jockeying on stage. And the only sign of Donald Trump was at the top of the 64- story hotel branded with his name just down the Strip.
That said, the first Democratic presidential debate resembled the first two Republican ones in this: It was a roiling clash of views, and there was clearly a prime target standing in the middle of the stage.
Clinton lost her status as the party’s inevitable nominee through a difficult summer, but she remains the front- runner by double digits and the party’smost likely standard- bearer in 2016. That put her in the spotlight and in the cross-
hairs from a combative Sanders and a trio of long- shot candidates — former Virginia senator Jim Webb, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee and O’Malley — struggling for traction at their first face- toface encounter.
But after two dozen debates in the 2008 campaign, Clinton was by far the most experienced figure on stage, giving no quarter against four rivals who were each making their first appearance in a national debate. She cited the breakthrough that her election as the first woman president would represent.
And she repeatedly sought to contrast her positions not with her Democratic competitors but against the Republicans, as though she already had made it to the general election.
On the issue that has dogged her for months, her exclusive use of a private email server when she was secretary of State, she acknowledged with a determined smile that it “wasn’t the best choice.”
Then she called the special House panel investigating it “an arm of the Republican National Committee” – citing bragging by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that the inquiry had succeeded in bringing down her poll ratings – and said she preferred to talk about the kitchen- table issues that concern most Americans.
Even Sanders joined her on that. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” the Vermont senator said to laughter. “Let’s talk about the real issues facing Americans.”
Clinton reached out to shake his hand, and the largely partisan audience stood and applauded.
Chafee disagreed, saying the email controversy had cost Clinton credibility a world leader would need.
Sanders faced a barrage of questions as well.
He was forced to explain how he would be able to serve as commander in chief despite having applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.
He denied that his affiliation as a democratic socialist, and the fact that he says he’s not a capitalist, would make him unelectable, noting he had demonstrated an ability to enlist the enthusiastic support of young people.
Neither O’Malley, Webb nor Chafee seemed to score the sort of breakthrough moment that’s likely to significantly expand their support and put them in the top tier of candidates.
For all the fireworks at the debate, sponsored by CNN and moderated by Anderson Cooper, two other events that follow in short order are likely to be equally consequential for Clinton.
Next week, she is slated to testify before a House committee initially established to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack and now pursuing the email controversy.
And Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce whether he’ll jump in the race, a decision he initially promised by the end of the summer but has delayed as he weighs the impact on his family and his prospects to prevail.
Advisers acknowledge that the approach of filing deadlines for primary ballots in several states — including in first- in- thenation New Hampshire — presumably will force him to make a call soon, one way or the other.