The pundits were more effusive, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Hillary Clinton held serve in last night’s Democratic primary debate. (More)

“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails”

It says a lot that Bernie Sanders’ most memorable line of last night’s debate came when he defended Hillary Clinton:

While repeating that her private e-mail server was a “mistake,” she said the House committee that exposed the issue was “a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers.” She added: “I am still standing.”

Sanders, invited to criticize Clinton, instead leaped to her defense. “I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” he said.

The Democratic partisans cheered. Clinton shook Sanders’s hand and thanked him.

In that story, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said Clinton “towered over” her rivals. Maybe so. But the screen shot of that handshake was all over the news this morning, and I thought that was the most important moment of the debate. It showed that, unlike the GOP WHannabes, our Democratic candidates can debate important issues without diving into the gutter.

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

The Post’s Stephen Stromberg agreed that Clinton shone, although he chose a different defining moment:

This is the moment when Hillary Clinton won Tuesday night’s Democratic debate: “I’m a progressive,” she said, “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” Clinton went on to talk about how she has worked with Republicans to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a bona-fide progressive victory. The message was: The way to advance progressive goals is not to toss off an ideologically satisfying wish-list of grandiose government programs and expect the country to suddenly fall into agreement, it is to admit that policymaking demands a sense of nuance and of the possible. Clinton made the case that she offers much more than political triangulation and an e-mail scandal. She argued that she offers thoughtfulness and competence — and that this does not make her an ideological turncoat.

“I’m not taking a backseat to anyone on my values, my principles and the results that I get,” she declared, before saying she would target additional federal spending at people who really need it rather than promising massive expansions of government programs in order to offer benefits to rich as well as poor. Bernie Sanders responded that he would radically raise taxes on the rich to pay for new universal entitlements, which can’t justify poorly targeted programs and is beyond politically impossible.

The Post has an annotated transcript of the debate, in case you missed it. Even their conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin called last night “the best night of her campaign.”

“A quagmire within a quagmire”

Sanders was wrong-footed on gun safety, as the moderators noted that he voted against the Brady Bill, and the assault weapons ban, and voted to shield gun companies from liability lawsuits. His defense that liability shield law was “large and complicated” seemed weak. Apart from The Handshake, his strongest moment came when he talked about Syria, but even then Clinton stole his thunder:

It was a dominant performance that showcased Mrs. Clinton’s political arsenal: a long record of appearances in presidential debates, intense and diligent preparation, and a nimbleness and humor largely lacking in her male counterparts. She let no opportunity pass her by. When Mr. Sanders described the conflict in Syria as “a quagmire within a quagmire” but said he did not support sending American ground troops there, Mrs. Clinton interjected energetically: “Nobody does. Nobody does, Senator Sanders.”

Jon Ralston summarized Sanders’ performance well:

I don’t suggest Sanders was awful. He was not.

The Vermont senator had a few shaky moments, to be sure, but his angry, populist rhetoric was manna for those who Feel the Bern. He surely thrilled those he has already thrilled.

What he did not do, by refusing to attack (or even contrast himself with) Clinton, and by even furiously defending her on the email controversy, is give anyone outside his base any reason to support him.

“There are few issues on which the Democratic candidates disagree”

The Dallas Morning NewsGromer Jeffers Jr. said the debate was such a mismatch that Democrats could cancel the rest of the series:

Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate showcased that Hillary Clinton’s real challenge is the general election contest against a Republican opponent to be determined.

The others on the stage – Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee – didn’t come close to gaining traction in their underdog races against Clinton.

It feels like Democrats are playing out the string, and there are still five of these mismatches left.

It’s not that Sanders, O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee are awful candidates. It’s that Clinton is a much stronger candidate than you’d guess from reading the pundits and, as Jeffers explains, her Democratic opponents have few substantive attack opportunities:

At the same time, Clinton achieved her real objective. She talked about policies that appeal to women and minorities, including income inequality, immigration and stronger families. Her task was easier because there are few issues on which the Democratic candidates disagree.

Clinton’s strategy from now until the general election is to re-create the coalition that propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012.

The former secretary of state and New York senator knows if she effectively fires up Hispanic, black, Asian, women and white progressives, she will win the White House.

ABC News toted up the numbers and found that rivals most often criticized Clinton and Sanders (11 and 8 attacks, respectively) and Clinton and Sanders dominated in speaking time (28 and 26 minutes, respectively). O’Malley, Webb, and Chafee simply could not compete, and I expect at least one of them will drop out before the next debate.

In tennis terms, Hillary Clinton easily held serve … and as the frontrunner that’s all she really needed to do.

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Photo Credit: CNN

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Good day and good nuts