Hillary Clinton

“I’m a progressive – but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Philip Rucker

National Political Correspondent

When Hillary Clinton stepped onto the debate stage, she was a front-runner in peril. Two hours later, she had resurrected her candidacy. Most Democrats want to like Clinton — and on Tuesday night she gave them many reasons to. She was prepared, polished and presidential. There were flashes of the human Hillary, too. Rushing back from a bathroom break, she quipped, “It does take me a little longer.” By the time Lincoln Chafee criticized her e-mails and she was asked if she wanted to respond, Clinton simply said, “No.” She didn’t need to and she knew it.

David Weigel

National Political Reporter

No candidate has done so much good for a campaign in one debate since Newt Gingrich demolished a CNN moderator for asking about his multiple marriages. Clinton’s performance was a generous dollop of aloe for Democrats who had spent six months panicking that she would blow the election. Her campaign has been stuck in a strange loop, issuing substantive (if small-bore) policy positions only to watch every news cycle get subsumed by e-mail questions. But Clinton was so quick and cutting tonight that Democrats can once again imagine putting her on the debate stage against a Republican nominee. Even the issues where she marched left — gun control, family leave — were issues where she met the electorate.

Bernie Sanders

“Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”

Philip Rucker

National Political Correspondent

The big challenge for Bernie Sanders has been for Americans to see him as a plausible president, not merely as the vessel for their populist rage. So in the debate he needed to act, well, presidential — to demonstrate command of the issues, stay confident and composed, show empathy. Instead, he turned in an uneven performance. Sanders had moments of brilliance, such as railing against “the billionaire class” and lines from the stump speech that has enthralled the grass roots. But at other times, he was defensive, cranky and somewhat unprepared for the intense back-and-forth with Hillary Clinton. To establish himself as a truly credible contender for the presidency, he will need to rise to her level next time.

David Weigel

National Political Reporter

Before the debate, in one of the interminable cable news interviews that accompanied CNN’s countdown clock, David Axelrod suggested that Sanders had done enough to introduce his issues and it was time for him to introduce himself. Sanders did not take this advice. Most of his lines had been fine-tuned at rallies and town hall meetings, starting with his insistence that he was electable because “63 percent of the American people didn’t vote” in 2014. Challenged on his biggest liberal weakness, his gun rights votes, he did exactly what has gotten him into trouble before, trying to define such issues as secondary to economics. Ironically, Sanders might have done the most good when he swung in for Hillary Clinton. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails” was a line that benefited them both.

Martin O’Malley

“We don’t have to be defined by the e-mail scandal.”

Philip Rucker

National Political Correspondent

Luck is a great virtue in politics, but Martin O’Malley didn’t have nearly enough of it. He turned in a solid performance, but not quite a breakthrough. He was prepared, knowledgeable and articulate, but little of what he said was memorable. After a slow start, he had some strong lines. He made an emotional case for gun control and was the only candidate who could say he actually took action to toughen gun laws. He introduced himself to the country as a can-do executive promising new leadership. And in his closing statement, he sounded Kennedyesque as he expounded upon “the goodness within our country.” Still, it was Hillary Clinton’s night when his struggling candidacy needed it to be Martin O’Malley’s.

David Weigel

National Political Reporter

Narrative is a cruel and ugly beast. Before the debate, pundits had decided that O’Malley faced a “make or break” moment and needed to do . . . something . . . to climb into the Sanders-Clinton tier. He made no mistakes, but a jugular lunge of the sort the media asked for was simply not in his repertoire. This has not prevented other candidates from slumping for months then breaking out in Iowa. (Who can remember a breakout Rick Santorum debate moment?) But if “sincerity” remains the sauce that gets insurgents into the conversation, Sanders has it, and O’Malley is too studiously political.

Jim Webb

“Unless somebody mentions my name, I can’t get into the discussion.”

Philip Rucker

National Political Correspondent

If presidential debates were scored on how often candidates interrupted and forced themselves into other people’s conversations, Jim Webb would have won handily. Unfortunately for Webb, they are not. He complained incessantly about not being called upon, but in the time he was granted he offered little in the way of fresh ideas about the policy issues shaping the race. He showed command on foreign affairs — and sprinkled in nice biographical details, like the fact that his mother grew up poor in Arkansas chopping cotton and picking strawberries — but he will need to become a more active presence in this campaign to make a serious run at the nomination.

David Weigel

National Political Reporter

The first Democratic candidate to launch an exploratory bid for president has been one of the least visible, rarely seen on the campaign trail. That has not shocked reporters, who recall Webb as a cerebral senator who loathed politicking as an impediment to the adoption of his ideas. Webb hit every mark in his critique of Obama-Clinton foreign policy, barreling over Anderson Cooper to issue an order to the government of China (“You do not own the South China Sea!”) and re-litigate the 2011 no-fly zone over Libya. The problem: Democratic primary voters seem wholly uninterested in a fight over foreign policy. It may be Clinton’s greatest weakness, it may be a secondary issue to Sanders, but Webb positioned himself well only if that attitude changes. Webb also was given just about every litmus test that matters to liberals — Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, guns, immigration — and either wavered, seemed uncomfortable or proudly flunked the question. All of which begs the question: Why is this man seeking the Democratic presidential nomination?

Lincoln Chafee

“I’d just arrived, my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office, it was my very first vote.”

Philip Rucker

National Political Correspondent

Democrats watching the debate may have wondered what Lincoln Chafee was doing on stage. By the end, Chafee may have been asking the same thing. He’s been a Democrat for only two years, yet he insisted he has been ideologically pure. “You’re looking at a block of granite,” he said. Americans probably don’t want a block of granite in the White House, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Asked about a 1999 Senate vote against Wall Street regulations, Chafee defended himself by saying he was new to the job. Not since Rick Perry’s “oops” has a debate gaffe induced so many cringes.

David Weigel

National Political Reporter

This debate revealed the real Chafee: a throwback to an era when the privileged and barely qualified could plop effortlessly into leadership roles. (Think of the Comedy Central series “Another Period,” but less funny.) Several times, Chafee took credit for bold stances that he did not actually take, never more strangely as when he referred to a “99-to-1” vote for the USA Patriot Act. (Wisconsin’s Russell Feingold cast the lone “nay,” not Chafee.) There was never any Lincoln Chafee constituency in a Democratic Party, and there won’t be after tonight.

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