Hillary Clinton’s Debate Comeback?

Hillary Clinton leads the national polls by an average of 21.7 points over her nearest rivals for the Democratic nomination. She’s leading in every single early primary state, with only Iowa even close.

Even so, a poor performance in one in a seemingly endless series of debates sparked discussion of a collapse of her campaign. The “Hillary is no longer inevitable” meme laid the foundation for a round of “Hillary’s Amazing Comeback” discussion if she bounced back with a good performance. By most accounts, she did exactly that last night.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Democratic Debate Photo Isaac Brekken for The New York Times Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama on Thursday night at the debate in Las Vegas.

“Clinton’s in Thick of Barbed Democratic Debate,” Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, NYT:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton shifted to a much more assertive tone in a debate Thursday night by going directly after her opponents, issuing a stern warning that Democrats should stop “throwing mud” and adopting tactics “right out of the Republican playbook.”


The most striking change from the seven previous debates was that Mrs. Clinton no longer stayed above the fray, and instead addressed her rivals by name, criticizing their positions, and rebutting them as much as the moderator would allow.

Her refashioned approach was a response to the political damage she suffered from the last debate, on Oct. 30, when her rivals questioned her honesty and electability, her position on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and her role in keeping her papers from the Clinton administration under wraps.

Chuck Todd, MSNBC:

If the last debate was the moment where Democrats realized that the Clinton coronation was, at least, postponed, this one will be known as the debate that seemed to sharpen the contrast between Clinton and Obama and create a gap between the big two and everyone else. The sparring between Clinton and Obama on a number of issues is likely to set the tone for some time. Edwards was hurt, partially, by the fact that Clinton and Obama were next to each other, while Edwards was off to the side.

This debate was about Clinton effectively fighting back, Obama sticking to his guns and separation between those two and everyone else.


One final Clinton v. Obama point. Clinton really benefitted from the audience responses; I’d love to know who got tickets for this debate, whether one campaign was allowed to get more tix than another. Because the booing by the Clinton supporters when Edwards or Obama confronted Clinton were distracting to the candidates and did throw them off every now and then.

“Call It A Comeback?” Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic:

Tonight’s debate will probably stop the talk of a huge momentum swing away from Hillary Clinton. Though a little overly conducted at times, Clinton did not sound any obvious false notes, nor did she strike confusing or conflicting notes, and, as a bonus, she got an entire minute and a half to make her rah-rah appeal to women. Clinton had the most at stake tonight, and she arguably gave her most commanding performance to date.

“Clinton Looks to Rebound,” Bill Sammon, Washington Examiner:

Coming off the worst two weeks of her campaign, presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to the debate stage today with hopes of regaining her footing.

“Analysis: Clinton makes a recovery in Las Vegas debate,” Mark Preston, CNN:

Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped into the ring Thursday in this city known for prize fights, successfully beating back an onslaught of punches thrown from the left and right as her opponents sought to rattle the front-runner seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton, who entered this Democratic debate vulnerable following a lackluster performance two weeks ago, came out fighting in the first round.

For the New York Democrat, a good defense was a strong offense, and she sought to silence her critics who stood just feet away.

“I don’t mind taking hits on my record, on issues,” she said. “But when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it’s both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.”

Honestly, I’m not sure which is more absurd: The notion that Clinton was ever behind or that her whining about “piling on” has apparently worked, creating a base of sympathy for her. If forced to chose, though, I’d go with the latter.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Zennie says:

    This shows a big disconnect between what people are saying online and what mainstream — not new media — people are writing. Barack Obama won the debate.

  2. F.Igwealor says:

    The moderator disenfranchised John Edwards at yesterday’s debate.

    He decided to give the platform to Joe Biden so as to deny edwards any opportunity of calling Clinton out on her flip-flopping.

    Hillary’s a sure loser for a general election!!!!

  3. Big Silly says:

    Hooray! Hillary is ensuring a Republican victory in 2008! Yay!

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The media wouldn’t have anything to report on the campaign at all if they couldn’t gin up stories of Sen. Clinton losing support.

  5. Wayne says:

    I watch the first third of the debate. Clinton was pretty weak but most of her competition was even weaker. Biden and Edwards was the best about giving somewhat straight answers but were pretty much ignored by Wolf.

    Understand that I am a Republican and maybe Dems like tap dancers. I thought the part of the debate I watch wasn’t very informative. I mean Obama stated that he is for border security several times but never says how he would improve it beyond employers shouldn’t be hiring them. Is he proposing greatly increasing funding for fencing and agents?

    That may be. It seem they all were for greatly increasing all spending and new programs except for the war and the military.

  6. Wayne says:

    One more thing, when is anyone going ask Clinton how she plans to unite the country when nearly 50% hates her and she has done nothing but gin up partisanship?

  7. graywolf says:

    Face it………
    Most (if not all the MSM) are just Clinton shills.

    Imagine how the Republicans would do if:
    They were halfway competent and they didn’t
    have to run against the dem cong/media alliance.