Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Perry Bacon Jr.

Hillary Clinton was a winner at the first Democratic presidential debate, but she has Bernie Sanders to thank for coming out of the contest mostly unscathed.

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.

Sanders' move then allowed the former secretary of state to concentrate on her policy positions instead of having to defend her e-mail practices to millions of Americans.

Unencumbered, Clinton turned in a solid, gaffe-free performance, skillfully deflecting other rivals' criticism of her record and forcefully hitting the Republican field on issues like Planned Parenthood and immigration.

Sanders, for his part, also turned in a solid debate, with frequent references to his signature push to temper the influence of the rich and powerful in the political process.

Without a major stumble from the party's top two candidates, the likelihood is fading that Democrats will beg Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race. And if Biden remains on the sidelines, Clinton will remain the huge favorite to win, because of her strong support with the party’s establishment and among moderate, conservative and non-white Democrats.

“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails, Sanders said of Clinton's email scandal. “The middle class … the middle class in this country is collapsing, we have 27 million people living in poverty, we have massive wealth and income inequality, our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails.”

A smiling Clinton immediately shook hands with Sanders after the comment, realizing he had done her a huge favor. Democratic activists in the debate hall in Las Vegas erupted in applause.

To be sure, even if Biden does not run, Sanders has surged in polls over the last few months, and the debate could help him make even more gains against Clinton.

The self-proclaimed socialist had a huge national audience to explain his views and repeatedly emphasized his opposition to big banks and Wall Street banks and proposals to make public college tuition-free and increase taxes on the wealthy, all positions popular with Democratic voters. He noted his opposition to imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, contrasting himself with Clinton, who favors that proposal, and reinforcing the gap between the Democrat left and the more hawkish Clinton on foreign policy.

And two other Democratic candidates, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and ex-Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, joined with Sanders to repeatedly remind Democrats of Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq War in 2002.

But much of the debate played to Clinton’s advantages. She was repeatedly able to link herself to President Barack Obama, who remains very popular among Democrats. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley joined Clinton to hammer Sanders over his votes in Congress against some gun control provisions and his support of a law that makes it harder to sue gun manufacturers, policy positions that put Sanders to the right of many Democrats. And because her opponents largely avoided the e-mail issue and other personal controversies surrounding Clinton, the debate was very focused on policy issues, an ideal situation for the wonkish secretary of state.