Hillary Clinton Gets a Break from Her 'Damn Emails'

John Locher/AP

All sum­mer long Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign was defined largely by one word: email.

On Tues­day night, in the first Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial de­bate in Las Ve­gas, the em­battled fron­trun­ner pushed past the con­tro­versy that has dogged her cam­paign and ex­hib­ited a fight­ing spir­it in a series of pas­sion­ate ap­peals to voters that still ques­tion her lib­er­al bona fides. What’s more is that she did so with con­sid­er­able help from her primary rival.

Half way through the two-and-a-half-hour de­bate, Sen. Bernie Sanders af­firmed Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of the con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to her private email serv­er as a Re­pub­lic­an scheme to des­troy her cam­paign.

“Let me say something that I think may not be great polit­ics, but I think the sec­ret­ary is right,” he said. “And I think the Amer­ic­an people are sick and tired of hear­ing about your damn emails!” 

Clin­ton flashed a wide smile, ex­ten­ded her hand and said, “Thank you, Bernie.”

The de­bate crowd erup­ted, and though mod­er­at­or An­der­son Cooper at­temp­ted to press the is­sue fur­ther, the con­ver­sa­tion quickly moved to fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion, col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity, im­mig­ra­tion, cli­mate change—with Clin­ton us­ing every op­por­tun­ity to high­light the de­tailed policy pro­pos­als from her cam­paign that have been ec­lipsed for months.

As her rivals chal­lenged her lib­er­al cre­den­tials, she pledged a “new New Deal” for ra­cial minor­it­ies, vowed to “rein in the ex­cesses of cap­it­al­ism” and de­livered a blis­ter­ing at­tack on Re­pub­lic­ans for their at­tempts to de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood: “I’m not tak­ing the back­seat to any­body on my val­ues, my prin­ciples and the res­ults I get,” she de­clared to ap­plause.

It was a per­form­ance that re­minded people why she was once seen as the Demo­crats’ in­ev­it­able nom­in­ee, and it should serve to sta­bil­ize her strug­gling cam­paign and quiet nervous sup­port­ers who feared her second bid for the White House was in deep trouble.

Nev­er­the­less, the night also provided op­por­tun­it­ies for Sanders and former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley to out­flank Clin­ton on the left as they ques­tioned her judg­ment and char­ac­ter. CNN’s Cooper pushed that line of ques­tion­ing when he asked about her in­con­sist­en­cies on a vari­ety of is­sues, from trade agree­ments to same sex mar­riage. Her an­swers likely did her no fa­vors to the grow­ing num­ber of people who tell poll­sters they see her as un­trust­worthy.

“Every­one on this stage has changed a po­s­i­tion or two,” she said. “We know that if you are learn­ing, you are go­ing to change your po­s­i­tions.”

Dis­cuss­ing her drawn-out de­cision on the Key­stone XL pipeline, she offered a line that echoed John Kerry’s bungled ex­plan­a­tion of his Ir­aq war fund­ing vote in 2004: “I nev­er took a po­s­i­tion on Key­stone un­til I took a po­s­i­tion on Key­stone.” In­deed, Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives were already gloat­ing on Twit­ter about the po­ten­tial for at­tack ads.

At­tempt­ing to gain ground, Sanders, O’Mal­ley and former Rhode Is­land Gov. Lin­coln Chafee re­peatedly turned the con­ver­sa­tion to Clin­ton’s Ir­aq war vote – one of her biggest li­ab­il­it­ies in the 2008 race – say­ing that it showed poor judg­ment. Sanders said it was the “worst for­eign policy blun­der in the his­tory of this coun­try,” while Chafee said, “I did my home­work” and voted no.

Clin­ton, however, breezed past it, not­ing that she had ar­gued with Obama over the is­sue dur­ing the course of more than two dozen de­bates eight years ago – and that he nev­er­the­less chose her to be his sec­ret­ary of state. “He val­ued my judg­ment,” she said, to cheers. She also won ap­plause by point­ing out that O’Mal­ley en­dorsed her in that cam­paign.

Sanders also man­aged to score points with the crowd, get­ting big ap­plause for his ap­peal to break up the largest banks and his un­apo­lo­get­ic la­beling of cli­mate change as the na­tion’s para­mount se­cur­ity threat.

Some of the most poin­ted ex­changes came on the is­sue of gun con­trol, with Clin­ton—far more will­ing to go on the at­tack than her lone rival in the polls—at­tempt­ing to por­tray Sanders as weak on the top­ic; he comes from rur­al Ver­mont, where hunt­ing is pre­val­ent, and has a mixed re­cord. Sanders touted his low “D-” rat­ing from the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation and pledged his sup­port for in­stant back­ground checks and tough­er reg­u­la­tions, but said polit­ic­al lead­ers needed to find con­sensus with rur­al gun-own­ers. O’Mal­ley seized on that, em­phas­iz­ing his re­cord of passing tough­er gun meas­ures in Mary­land. Clin­ton went fur­ther. “It’s time the en­tire coun­try stood up against the NRA,” she said.

If Tues­day night demon­strated that Clin­ton’s Demo­crat­ic rivals have no in­terest in mak­ing her emails in­to an is­sue in the primary, there’s an up­com­ing re­mind­er that her Re­pub­lic­an rivals have no in­terest in let­ting the is­sue ever go away—and that if she wins the nom­in­a­tion, she’ll have to con­tend with it all over again.

Clin­ton is set to testi­fy be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House com­mit­tee look­ing in­to the 2012 ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Benghazi, Libya. Among the top­ics on the agenda: email.

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