She looked experienced. Like the Hillary Clinton of debates past. Like Beyoncé, even.
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, was the near-universal pick of media and pundits declaring her the winner.
“Hillary Clinton was Beyoncé. She was flawless,” CNN Democratic political commentator Van Jones said on the network afterward.
By many accounts, Tuesday night’s performance was the best day of her campaign – at least in a long time. Many Clinton skeptics came out reassured, saying she looked like the Democrat who they’d want debating the Republican nominee next fall.
A Politico survey of political activists, operatives, and strategists found Clinton won “by a landslide.” Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin gave her an “A.” Even Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, said Wednesday morning that she “came out the winner.”
“It was the best day of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman wrote in the publication’s morning newsletter Wednesday.
“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.”
The day started off, in fact, with more of those stories about her use of a private email server. Politico published an in-depth account of how Clinton was “blindsided” by the controversy that would go on to engulf her campaign. And The Associated Press published the latest drip of details on her server, including that it seemed shockingly vulnerable to potential hacks.
But early on, she received unexpected – if likely – backup from her main rival on the issue. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the liberal insurgent who has gained on Clinton in early-state polls, declared that the American people were “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” It was the top social moment of the debate, according to Facebook.
“By saying early in the night that Americans are tired of the controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email account, Sanders essentially neutralized the Democratic frontrunner’s biggest weakness during the two-hour long CNN debate,” NBC’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote.
That line helped Sanders, too, and his campaign seemed to agree – it fundraised almost immediately off the comments.
Two other moments defined Clinton’s debate performance: First, when she took Sanders to task for his support of a controversial gun measure that has garnered him criticism from Democrats on the campaign trail. She was asked, point blank, by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper if she thought Sanders had gone far enough to stave off a rash of gun violence. She said he hadn’t.
“She was poised she was passionate and she was in command,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “If I were her campaign, I would be thrilled with what she did tonight.”
And Clinton was the only Democratic candidate to mention the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood, which earned her another big applause line.
Hillary already won this debate but she double won it just now w the answer on family leave/Planned Parenthood
— Nick Riccardi (@NickRiccardi) October 14, 2015
Her performance was not without flaws, however. Sanders pushed her on her ties to Wall Street, a rare point at which she seemed flummoxed. She also provided an awkward answer over her wavering position on the Keystone XL Pipeline when she said, “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position.”
But Clinton’s team was clearly happy. Ian Sams, a spokesman for Clinton, tweeted out headlines from a variety of sources declaring Clinton the winner:
— Emmy Bengtson (@EmmyA2) October 14, 2015