Still the leader among Democrats in polls, Hillary Rodham Clinton generally followed a front-runner strategy in her first debate with four rivals Tuesday. She concentrated her most intense fire at the Republicans, sought to earn "outsider" points as the only female on stage, and worked to obscure some policy differences by saying she'd be most effective in enacting common goals.
But, of course, it wasn't that simple. The intense web of weaving and dancing that spanned their two hours on national television had the hopefuls alternating among agreement, shaded disagreement, and outright clashes as CNN's moderators broached international and domestic issues one at a time.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, pounded his hard-line call for a "revolution" against "casino capitalism" and a "rigged economy." At one point, he characterized Clinton as being "naive" in essentially asking financial institutions to "please do the right thing."
But he also made it to the verbal highlight reel with a declaration -- for which Clinton laughed and thanked him: "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about her damn E-mails!"
Clinton sought to identify with the drift of other candidates' statements, inveighing against inequality but suggesting that she was the candidate with "the vision for actually making these changes."
"I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done," she said. On capitalism, she chided Sanders, saying at one point it would be a mistake to "turn our backs" on the small-business engines of the economy. Sanders called it "a great entrepreneurial nation," but said that fraud has become a business model on Wall Street.
Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, clearly tried to leap out of relative obscurity. Prompted by a question from the panel, he called the National Rifle Association the enemy he's most proud of having made and played on Sanders' votes in Congress against certain gun-control measures.
Sanders, who noted his own D-minus rating from the NRA, said views on gun control differ in "rural states" such as Vermont, which he represents, from "urban states." O'Malley replied that he represented hunters in Maryland who were misled by the gun lobby, but that -- as a sign of his government experience -- was able to enact gun restrictions that took some persuading of leaders within his own Democratic Party.
Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia and Marine veteran who also served as U.S. Navy secretary, stood apart from others on several counts. While inveighing against the corrupting influence of big money on national politics, he defended past skepticism of affirmative action programs not directly aimed at redressing past disadvantages for African-Americans. He specifically clashed with Clinton over the U.S. approach to Libya while she was secretary of state and targeted China as a rival with which the U.S. must cope on several fronts.
Of course, Clinton drew revived fire for her support as a senator for the Iraq invasion in the early 2000s. But unlike in 2008, when it cost her against Barack Obama, she could respond this time, in part, that Obama nevertheless made her secretary of state, in which role she claimed success.
Lincoln Chaffee, the former Rhode Island senator and governor, said that despite his having formerly been a Republican, he was as solid as granite when it came to his basic values -- and that it was his former party that moved away from him.
In the end, Clinton sought to sidestep Sanders' much-publicized left-leaning populism by coming off as pragmatic, while Webb, Chaffee and especially O'Malley enjoyed perhaps their first shot of concentrated exposure, something they've awaited for months. O'Malley made reference at one point to having pushed for these forums to get going. At least he'll be mentioned in the media reviews of whom the two-hour show may have helped.