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Democrats Spar Over Gun Control, Wall Street Reform In First Debate


Voters, donors and pundits are still picking over last night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas. It was the first time all five candidates sparred before a national audience. Who won? Who lost? We'll hear about that in a moment from a group well-qualified to make the call - a college debate team. But first, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me to talk about the effect it's had today on the candidates' political fortunes. And Mara, to begin, as we've seen with the GOP primary, debates can make or break frontrunners. What did this do for Hillary Clinton?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: First and foremost, it made her campaign very, very happy. She came into this debate dogged by worries among Democrats about the toll that the email controversy had taken on her. Her favorable ratings were dropping. But Democrats across the board and some Republicans, too, are saying today that last night she was in command. She demonstrated why serious debate prep pays off. She laid out her position as a, quote, "progressive who likes to get things done." She was able to get to the left of Bernie Sanders on guns, to the right of him on socialism. And she even got a nice assist from Sanders when he swept the email issue off the table. And perhaps more importantly, she was loose. She didn't look programmed. She smiled a lot, and she really was a happy warrior. And just to let you - give you an idea of how happy team Clinton is today, the subject line on a fundraising email from Bill Clinton said wow, wow, wow.

CORNISH: You mentioned Bernie Sanders, who actually took a lot of heat from his competitors on stage. What did his performance do for his campaign today?

LIASSON: Well, there are different metrics to measure success in a debate. And while Hillary might've gotten high grades from Democratic insiders, the Sanders campaign is pointing to the close to $2 million they say he raised from the debate and the fact that he was the most Googled during the debate. His website was the most visited. He won a Facebook poll. This is the first time that Sanders had appeared on a national stage - 15.3 million people watched just on television. That's a record for a Democratic debate. And clearly people were interested in what he had to say. And no one I talked to expects that Sanders will lose any support because of the debate last night.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley - did any of them have a breakout moment?

LIASSON: I don't - I have not talked to anyone who thinks they had a breakout moment. Martin O'Malley got a few moments, but not anything you could consider to be a breakout.

CORNISH: Now, one of the most talked about people of the presidential race wasn't on stage, right, or not in the race yet officially. How did this debate affect the push for Joe Biden to jump in?

LIASSON: You can argue that the most important audience for last night's debate was one guy, Joe Biden. And he is trying to make up his mind about getting in the race. And the consensus among Democrats was that Hillary Clinton's strong performance makes the case for a Biden candidacy much harder. And his advisers have been saying that the debate will not affect his decision. But if he was watching and waiting to see if Clinton would stumble or if her weaknesses would grow, there was no evidence of that last night. And even though the Clinton campaign has been extremely respectful of Biden's need to take his time and make his own decisions given that he just suffered the loss of his son, now the chairman of the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, is saying in so many words that it is time for Biden to fish or cut bait.

CORNISH: A few seconds left, Mara. Is this too early for a debate to mean a whole lot?

LIASSON: Well, debates do mean something. They're not determinative, but debates have consequences. Just imagine the conversation we'd be having today if Hillary Clinton had seemed stiff or robotic or defensive or if the other candidates had relentlessly attacked her ethics and trustworthiness. So it does matter.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.