Hillary Clinton arrived at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas as a deeply wounded front-runner, hoping to put a Middle East-related controversy behind her.
In April 2007, Clinton's vote in support of the Iraq War took center stage as the Democratic primaries kicked off. Now, in her second attempt to land the White House, she has been dogged over her handling of the 2012 Benghazi attack — and the private email servers that she communicated on while secretary of state.
For the second time in eight years, her firewall of presidential inevitability has been breached (or, should we say, hacked?) by an unsuspecting intruder. First, it was a Spock-eared novice from Chicago named Barack; now it's snow-haired socialist from Vermont named Bernie. Since spring, her favorability numbers have been in a steady plunge while the tick-tock stories of a campaign in distress are pumping out at a rate that usually comes only after a candidate has dropped out.
But Tuesday night could be viewed as the reset button that Clinton has desperately craved: a friendly audience, some respectful sparring partners, and questions that emphasized policy over scandal. Without being stress-tested, it's difficult to divine too many things about the trajectory and strategy of her campaign, but these things became clear:
SHE'S DONE APOLOGIZING FOR EMAILGATE
After months in which she slowly, reluctantly made concessions that her email server was a bad idea (politically, at least), Clinton demonstrated Tuesday night, with some recent political headwinds now behind her, that she's back on the offense. Addressing a question by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper — who waited nearly an hour to broach the subject — Clinton only reiterated her previous concessions that it was a "mistake" to host a private server while she was serving in public office, but that she has continued to be "as transparent as I know to be." She then quickly pivoted to the recent comments by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who implied that the House committee investigating Benghazi had effectuated its purpose by driving down Clinton's poll numbers. But, Clinton said, "I am still standing."
HER LATINO VOTER REACH-OUT EFFORT HAS COMMENCED
Even though there was only minor distinction between the candidates on immigration policy, Clinton wanted to keep the issue aloft long enough Tuesday night to make a general election statement: "There is such a difference between everything you are hearing here on this stage and what you heard from Republicans who have demonized hardworking (immigrants), who have insulted them." Without specificity, Clinton added that she would "go even further" with immigration executive orders than President Barack Obama has done.
SHE HAS MORE WORK TO DO ON HER FLIP-FLOPS
Although Clinton didn't appear to make any damning faux pas Tuesday night, her weakest moments came while she tried to address criticism that she flip-flops in the political wind, as evidenced by her newly minted oppositions to the Keystone pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. To which she said: "Everybody on this stage has changed a position or two. We know that if you are learning you are going to change your position." That is unlikely going to fly in the media, or with general election voters. And she only dug herself in deeper by delivering the evening's most oppo-research-friendly line, "I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone," which reads like the offspring of a John Kerry gaffe and a Bill Clinton equivocation.
SHE'S USING OBAMA AS HER FOREIGN POLICY SHIELD
After being called out by former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq invasion, Clinton summoned Obama, her former employer, to her defense. She mentioned that though she tussled with Obama throughout the 2008 election on the issue of the Iraq War, he ultimately picked her to be secretary of state. "He valued my judgment and I spent a lot of time with him in the situation room, going over some very difficult issues," Clinton said, noting that she was one of the few people who counseled him on the effort to kill Osama bin Laden.
SHE NEEDS TO BE CAREFUL WITH THE GENDER CARD
In case anyone watching the debate was unsure, Clinton let it be known repeatedly that she is, indeed, a woman. She mentioned this when asked about the rising urge of voters to elect an outsider — "I can't think of anything more outsider than being the first woman president," she said — and how her theoretical administration would differ from Obama's — "I think that's pretty obvious: being the first woman president." In front of this friendly Democratic audience, the dodge passably worked both times, but Clinton runs the risk of turning the glass ceiling into a punchline if she overdoes it.
THE BERN WON'T BURN HER ON STAGE
Clinton seemed raring to battle with Sanders, taking him to task early on his opposition to certain gun-restriction legislation. But Sanders, despite his lead in the polls in New Hampshire, was not looking to have a fight with Clinton, and passed up numerous opportunities to score points. Clinton's best moment of the debate arguably came when Sanders rallied to her defense to say that the American people "are tired about hearing about you damn emails," and that the campaign showed focus on more substantive questions. With primary opponents like that, who needs supporters?
SHE'S RUNNING AS A PARTISAN
Despite staking out some relatively moderate positions on national security and economics, she proved in no mood to build bridges across the aisle. Instead, Clinton repeatedly attacked and chastised Republicans on matters about Planned Parenthood, gun control and immigration. When the candidates were asked in the waning moments of the debate what political enemies they were most proud of making during their career, Clinton ticked off the health insurance companies, drug companies, the Iranians and "probably the Republicans."