When Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the debate stage Tuesday night in Las Vegas, it will be the first time in more than seven years she's done so. But, Clinton is no debate novice — having participated in more than two dozen debates during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.
So, what exactly do we know about Clinton the debater? I watched a bunch of the 2008 debates and read through everything (or most things) I wrote at the time to try and answer just that question. After a while, all of the debates (and the debate performances) start to blend together, but here are five observations I came up with. (You should also read Jack Shafer's Politico piece on what he learned by watching all of Clinton's 2008 debate performances.)
1. She's relentlessly on message. While Clinton's tendency to repeat rote answers and stick to talking points no matter what question is asked can be tedious and even off-putting on the campaign trail, it tends to work quite well in a debate setting. Clinton knows what she wants to say and will bend almost any question — no matter how contentious — back to her talking points. As I wrote of her when I named her a winner in the first Democratic debate of the 2008 primary race: "She was informed, concise and under control at all times. She showed her tough side when asked what she would do in the event of simultaneous terrorist attacks against two American cities — a question Sen. Barack Obama initially muffed before going back to it later — and managed to avoid any real confrontation over her refusal to apologize for her vote in favor of the use of force resolution."
2. She likes to stay above the fray. There were 17 Democratic debates in 2007 — and Clinton was the main target for her rivals' barbs in every one of them. For the most part, she tried to parry attacks directed at her and then quickly pivoted to focus on how she was the best candidate to beat the Republican nominee. This wasn't always the case (see more on Clinton as counter-puncher below), but by and large, she was willing to weather a fair amount of incoming without pushing back all that hard. Of course, that dynamic changed when the race — and the debates — narrowed to just Clinton and Obama. But given Clinton's current front-running position in the 2016 contest, I wouldn't expect her to slug it out with any of the other four candidates on stage — including her nearest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
3. She can deliver a line. All candidates come into a debate with a few zingers in their back (or front) pocket. It's the result of hours of debate prep and the certain knowledge that the best way to get noticed or to "win" a debate is with a witty retort. (Joe Biden's "yes" when asked if he would have the discipline to represent the U.S. on the world stage is a classic of the genre.) Questioned in one debate about allegations that she was playing the gender card — sidebar: all references to "playing the [fill in the blank] card" should immediately be banished — Clinton said, "People are not attacking me because I am a woman, they are attacking me because I am ahead." A good line — and well delivered.
4. She's better at counter-punching than she is at hitting first. Clinton has a strong, natural sense of when to leave attacks be and when to return fire. When she does decide to fire back, she's usually quite effective, thanks to her ability to quickly call up the key opposition research points against whoever is attacking her — Clinton has that knack in common with Donald Trump! — and tick them off. What she's far less adept at is taking the fight to an opponent. That's probably because for the vast majority of Clinton's time as a debater — both in the 2000 New York Senate race and in the 2008 presidential race — she's been the clear front-runner. An underdog's tactics don't come naturally to her. She never seemed to fully commit to a debate hit during 2008; she sort-of backed into attacks on, for instance, Obama's controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "You get to choose your pastor," Clinton said in a debate in Philadelphia in April 2008. "You don't choose your family, but you get to choose your pastor. And when asked a direct question, I said I would not have stayed in the church." It's not a bad line. But it wasn't nearly as forceful as it could have been.
5. Her cautiousness can get the best of her. The most memorable moment of the 2008 Democratic primary debates was a bad one for Clinton. In a late-October 2007 debate in Philadelphia, Clinton seemed to have things on cruise control, carefully avoiding any traps that her opponents tried to set for her. Then, in the final minutes of the debate, Clinton offered an overly political and equivocating answer on whether she supported giving undocumented workers driver's licenses in New York. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) quickly attacked — and was joined by Obama and then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). For Clinton, it marked the end of her time as the undisputed front-runner in the race — even though no one knew it at the time. The problem for Clinton is that cautiousness works only so well; it occasionally veers into looking as though she is forever calculating her responses. That debate trait could be problematic for Clinton tonight — especially when it comes to answering questions (whether from the moderators or the other candidates) about her private e-mail server.