The first Democrat Debate aired to a substantial amount of interest (15 MM viewers, a record for Democratic debates--but short of the Republican's massive 23MM viewership). This was probably due to (a) questions about Hillary being in decline, (b) Bernie Sander's fandom, and (c) people wondering "Who the hell are these other guys??"
The net results, however, are very clear:
- Hillary not only won--but won by a mile ('crushed it' in the words of a Democratic operative).
- Sanders probably did reasonably well--but not well enough to take the lead.
- Sanders, Clinton's main challenger, seems to have given Clinton a serious boost by saying the email stories were boring and the American people were tired of them.
Clinton--by bipartisan agreement--proved herself a capable debater. One of her strongest moments was when Lincoln Chafee hit her on the emails, she was asked if she wanted to respond, and she said "No." Partly this was because she's as done as she can be with the email story. Partly this is because Lincoln Chafee.
Observers have noted that if anything can stop Joe Biden from jumping in, this was probably it: Hillary's performance will likely reassure donors, give people inclined but not in the tank for Sanders a reason to take a second look at Clinton, and make her look like a serious contender for the general.
In other words, she nailed it.
Not Everybody Was Happy
In a sense, Hillary's debate was the first real "battle" between the GOP and the Democrats--moreso than the two GOP debates had anything to do with the Blue Team. How is that? Well, when Hillary went out there she was the presumptive candidate (despite flagging in the polls) and would automatically be judged against all of the GOP field. No one was watching and thinking "Gee, I wonder if Lincoln Chafee could beat Marco Rubio?"
If she had stumbled or simply just bored that would have been a serious GOP victory.
The second reason is that there were already two GOP debates. While the GOP candidates haven't entered the cannibalization phase of the primary (where they go full out with attack ads and such) there has been some of that (mostly from Trump and towards Trump) and there is definitely a "crowding" of the various "lanes" (Rubio, Jeb, and Kasich are all competing to be the establishment, centrist, candidate to one degree or another). The Democratic debate showed that while both Sanders and Clinton are competing for progressive votes (and, remember, this is a primary) that the knives are not out.
Sanders gave Clinton the political gift on emails--but more importantly, she wasn't called shifty, incompetent, or anything like that. Basically the Democrats all refrained from using GOP Talking points against her. This deprives the Republicans of a your-own-team-says-so credibility (remember Gingrich attacking Romney on 'Vulture Capitalism'? They shut that down right-quick).
The contrast between the parties suggests a stronger Democrat and a more damaged Republican by next summer.
Finally, and in the same vein, a third Republican has come out saying that the Benghazi investigation is politically motivated. This is bad because Hillary will build on her momentum from the debate next week at the hearing. If the GOP loses its grip on the email scandal and the investigations, their currently-most-potent-weapon will have fizzled more than a year before the general election (remember: Iran-Contra didn't sink the Bush run--scandals have to be pretty fresh).
If the email story stops working because people think it's just a partisan front (and 15MM people watched Hillary dismiss--and Sanders dismiss it to a standing ovation) they'll have to hope the FBI investigation ends in hand-cuffs for Hillary.
Of course that's gonna happen any minute now, isn't it? Isn't it?