WASHINGTON - It has been a good couple of weeks for Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton.
She turned in a strong performance in Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, with most analysts declaring her a clear winner. Her debate showing came on the heels of some Republican statements on the Benghazi probe that tend to reinforce Democratic accusations that it is being driven primarily to politically damage the former secretary of state.
The bottom line is that Clinton has re-established her status as the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination, even as her main challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, continues to benefit from a surge of support from party liberals looking for an alternative to Clinton.
The Sanders campaign raised nearly $2 million in the hours following the debate and Sanders was the main subject of attention in social media discussions both during and after the event.
Clinton’s previous debate experience came to the fore Tuesday as she made a forceful presentation of her policy views, even as she mixed in a strong critique of Sanders on gun control and foreign policy issues.
Clinton took part in 25 presidential debates during the 2008 primary battle with then-Senator Barack Obama and received generally strong reviews, even though Obama eventually emerged victorious. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Clinton supporter, told MSNBC that the debate was “the best two hours of her campaign” so far.
Clinton’s performance is likely to have a settling effect on Democrats who had grown nervous over poll numbers that showed Americans were increasingly distrustful of her.
That concern helped to fan the possibility that Vice President Joe Biden would get into the race as an alternative for establishment Democrats. But a lot of commentators now question how Biden would gain traction in the current field.
The weekly political newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato summed it up this way: “Debates can solidify the existing hierarchy. Clinton went into the debate the front-runner and she came out exactly the same — probably strengthened in that role.”
In the wake of the debate, many analysts now believe Biden would have an even more uphill struggle to win support should he decide to make a late entry into the race.
“Once he becomes a candidate, he is a politician and some of the issues that he had in two previous unsuccessful runs for the Democratic presidential nomination then emerge,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “But it would be a divided Democratic Party if Biden comes in in ways we haven’t seen up to now.”
Biden is expected to decide soon whether to go ahead with what would be his third try for the presidency, having failed in 1988 and 2008. Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said part of Biden’s calculation involves Obama.
“If Joe Biden gets in this race, he is going to make life difficult for Hillary Clinton," O'Connell said. "The question is whether or not he is actually going to the get the backing of the president, whom Democrats still love, and that is going to be the real key. If not, he is just going to make life tough for Hillary.”
Clinton’s next big challenge will come October 22 when she testifies before the special House committee investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the attacks and has been grilled by Congress before over her handling of the aftermath.
Clinton’s upcoming appearance has taken on even more political overtones in recent days. Clinton has dismissed the probe as a “partisan political” investigation after recent comments by two Republican House members.
New York Republican Representative Richard Hanna told a radio interviewer that “a big part” of the Benghazi investigation was “designed to go after an individual: Hillary Clinton.”
And in late September, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the Benghazi committee had taken a political toll on Clinton. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he said in an interview with Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her [poll] numbers today?”
Last week, McCarthy dropped out of the race for House speaker and acknowledged that his comments about Clinton had not helped his campaign.
Gift from Sanders
Clinton may have gotten a political gift from Sanders in the debate. Prompted to chime in on the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email account while secretary of state, Sanders agreed with Clinton that it was time to move on to other issues.
“I think the secretary is right," he said. "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails! Enough of emails!”
That comment drew a huge roar of approval from the Democratic crowd inside the Wynn Las Vegas resort-casino, where the debate was held. But it won’t deter Republicans on the Benghazi committee from raising the issue when Clinton testifies, nor will it prevent the Republican presidential contenders from focusing on the issue as a way to attack Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
Experts believe Clinton has righted her own campaign ship with her strong debate performance. But the former secretary of state still has work to do to improve her image with moderate swing voters who will play a huge role in next year’s general election, assuming that Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee.