It’s a new Democratic presidential race, with Hillary Clinton clearly the one to beat.
The former secretary of state begins this new chapter of the 2016 campaign the undisputed front-runner. Bernie Sanders is the unquestioned chief rival. While the first votes of 2016 are still three months away, chances are that unless someone blunders badly or springs a big surprise, that’s the way things will stay for a while.
The postmortems were nearly unanimous Wednesday, the day after Democrats staged their first debate of the campaign. Clinton dodged every bullet and emerged with barely a scratch. Sanders strengthened himself with his liberal base, but that was about it.
“Last night’s debate could blunt whatever growing support Sanders was getting,” said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H., which hosts candidate forums.
Clinton’s new-found momentum is likely to nudge Vice President Joe Biden even further from the race and all but buries the lesser challengers.
Here’s how the Democratic nominating race, post-debate version, looks:
Tier One: The clear leader
Clinton stood alone Wednesday. She had been gaining some strength even before the debate. Her poll numbers had stabilized and she got a big break when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tied her falling numbers to work of the Republican-led House Benghazi committee.
Clinton still faces some big tests, and her history suggests more turmoil ahead. She appears before the committee next week, and her commanding debate performance is likely to mean lots more money for her campaign – from the sort of big business and special interest donors that raised suspicions about her loyalties.
Democrats debate next Nov. 14. Unless some big new revelation surfaces that requires her defense, or she makes a major gaffe, voters are likely to see a rerun of Tuesday. They know Clinton, they expect some controversy, and as long as she explains herself in a reasonable manner, she survives and thrives.
Tier Two: Inching backward
He drops out of the top tier he shared with Clinton earlier in the week.
Where’s the gravitas? The soaring rhetoric? While Sanders reinforced the liberals’ ardor for him, rattling off statistics to dramatize the horrors of income inequality and getting angry at corporate excess, Sanders did little to suggest he can be the visionary leader the broader electorate demands.
The debate also magnified significant sources of controversy for him: Guns and democratic socialism.
The nation may be divided on guns, but Democratic voters aren’t. They’ve been frustrated for decades over Congress’ inability to enact significant curbs. Sanders opposed one of their few big wins, the 1993 Brady bill that mandated federal background checks and a waiting period for potential gun owners.
His disdain for capitalism also gave Clinton an opening, as she criticized its excesses but praised its history.
Tier Three: Those other guys
The former governor of Maryland should be a more serious player. He has the resume and temperament and has successfully fought and won the sort of fights the Democratic base relishes. He remains publicly upbeat, insisting after the debate that the race is just beginning as people start to notice the candidates.
He’s right about that. But he’s simply overshadowed by Clinton’s prowess and political acumen, and Sanders’ passion.
See O’Malley, above. He’s got a military and national security resume no one in the field can match. He has unique potential to appeal to more centrist voters. But the former senator from Virginia lacks the money and name recognition.
He doesn’t look or act presidential. He squandered the chance to engage Clinton on scandal and Iraq. He’s got little money and is barely known.