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Susan Estrich: Winners and Losers in the Democratic Debate

The usual rule in politics is that front-runners have little to gain and much to lose in debates. Debates put the front-runner on the same stage as those who have absolutely no chance of winning, elevating the less-popular candidates at the expense of the more-popular.

Debates also give the "lesser" (in terms of poll numbers) candidates the opportunity to pile on the front-runner, expose divisions within the party, and often leave an impression of squabbling children rather than future presidents.

If you doubt the conventional wisdom, just consider the recent Republican debates, which have helped to propel an unelectable candidate into the top spot, and have left the more plausible candidates looking like losers. Have the debates helped Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or John Kasich? I'd say no. 

But Tuesday night in Las Vegas was an entirely different story.

First of all, the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, whose handling of the email and Benghazi issues has left many Democrats wondering whether she can go the distance, reminded everyone exactly why she is — and deserves to be — the frontrunner.

I can honestly say she looked and sounded great, in total command of the issues. I actually got shivers as she talked about becoming America's first woman president.

Sure, I know it's a smart political move; she needs to remind women that they have a stake in her election. But it also happens to be true.

But Clinton was not the only winner in Tuesday's debate. What was striking, in comparing the Republican and Democratic debates, is that while Republicans made it painfully clear just how divided their party is, Democrats had to struggle to find points of disagreement.

Sure, Bernie Sanders is a socialist, unlike everyone else on the stage. But on issue after issue, from taxing the wealthy to protecting the rights of women, from environmental protection to education, what stood out most about the Democrats was the absence of sharp ideological splits. 

What a change. It was not so long ago that the Democratic Party was the one at war with itself over a wide spectrum of issues: the Vietnam War, women's rights, gay rights. We had floor fights at conventions and pitched battles on the platform committees.

Members of Congress and other elected offices didn't want to go near the Democratic National Convention, with all its separate caucuses. And oh, yes, the Democrats never had any money.

When I ran the platform committee in 1984 for Geraldine Ferraro, we ended up funding our meetings with contributions from the tobacco and distilled beverage lobbies. Best we could do.

Proving that if you wait long enough everything changes, it is now the Republican Party that is facing an internal civil war. As for the Democrats, the Democratic Leadership Council (aka "the white boys caucus"), which was formed to bring the party back to the center, no longer exists.

It was Bill Clinton, its former chair, who moved the party to unity and victory; and Barack Obama proved that the demographics were changing enough for an anti-death penalty, pro-affirmative action candidate to be elected to serve two terms as president.

 If Vice President Joe Biden was watching the debate Tuesday night, he should have been asking himself, "Why do I need to jump in this race?" Certainly not because he would be the only one offering a liberal alternative: It would be hard to find a major issue where he disagrees with Hillary Clinton.

And certainly not because of fears that Clinton can't win.

If nothing else, Tuesday proved that Clinton can not only hold her own in any debate; she comes across as the most presidential of all the candidates, which is not something I ever thought I'd be writing about the only woman on the stage.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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