Last night's debate in Las Vegas was the first presidential debate ever held in Nevada, and it did not disappoint those who were looking for both action and substance.
The pundits and her opponents have been playing up the argument that there are chinks in Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D. - NY) armor, alternately claiming she's slippery, she's playing the gender card and she's flip-flopping. Clinton forcefully addressed those issues Thursday night, and came away the clear winner of the debate.
Since the last debate in Philadelphia, Sen. Barack Obama (D. - Ill.) and John Edwards have attacked Clinton relentlessly, but in Las Vegas, Clinton hit back on her adversaries using their past history and positions on universal health care.
First, Clinton answered a direct attack from Obama when she correctly stated that Obama's universal health care plan isn't really universal at all. It would leave millions without health care, or about the population of a medium-size state, such as Nevada. Obama tried to answer her charge, but after being heckled by someone in the audience he barely managed to get out an answer.
Then, after Edwards said she was both for and against a variety of issues, Clinton reminded the crowd that Edwards failed to support universal health care when he ran for president in 2004. Then she went in for the kill:
I don't mind taking hits on my records, on issues. But when someone starts throwing mud, at least we can hope it's accurate and not right out of the Republican play book. For Edwards to be throwing this mud and making these charges, I think really detracts from what we are trying to do tonight: Putting forward a positive agenda for America telling people what we are going to do.
This sent two strong signals that changed the dynamics of the debate.
First, she made clear that a leader in the Democratic party should not attack other Democrats with Republicans framing. Second, it showed Edwards and Obama need to be careful not to get burned when they attack, because Sen. Biden (D. - Del.), Sen. Dodd (D. - Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson all condemned the shrillness coming from negative attacks.
Biden, in fact, had a good night. He consistently offered straight talk on issues such as Iraq, Pakistan and education. It is difficult to say why he hasn't grabbed greater attention in this election. Part of the blame goes on the media for focusing on the front-runners. The rest of the blame has to fall on him as he always insists he knows more than the others. He needs a little more humility.
Gov. Bill Richardson also did well. He gave the best answer of the night on a policy issue when he took apart the idea that immigration was the new divisive issue. He explained that not only was he in favor of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, but that he had already signed off on it in New Mexico. He made the case that it's a security issue and said increased registration of drivers has lead to a decrease of accidents and fatalities from accidents in his state.
Dennis Kucinich played a role in the debate, but it wasn't one to John Edwards liking. Residing furthest to the left of all the candidates, he used this perch to show that Edwards' record has had some inconsistencies: Vote for the war, vote for Patriot act, a vote in favor of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and a vote for Most Favored Nation status for China. Edwards has backtracked on these votes. Kucinich proudly pointed out he's the only candidate who hasn't changed positions. (No mentions of UFOs, however.)
Sen. Clinton demonstrated another reason she's a front-runner. She understands that a Democrat can't come off as weak on national security -- the issue that cost John Kerry the election in 2004. Wolf Blitzer worked hard to nail down the candidates on whether our national security took preference over human rights issues. This is an issue now with Pakistan.
Both Edwards and Obama refused to definitively state that U.S. security came first, but Clinton stepped right up and said: "My first obligation is to protect America." This answer might not be best for some on the left who support human rights, but it's the answer that could win the general election.
All in all, Thursday was Clinton's night. She answered her challengers and her critics, and she set the record straight: She's never played the gender card, all she has ever wanted to do is play the winning cards. It's best to do that in Vegas.