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What e-mails? Republicans lose as Sanders and Clinton play nice in debate.

Unity marks first Democratic debate, as Bernie Sanders dismisses Hillary Clinton's e-mail trouble as a defining issue. 

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Hillary Clinton laugh during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas.

John Locher/AP

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“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.”

It was the line of Tuesday night’s debate, uttered by Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton knew it. She turned to her top Democratic primary challenger, and created the visual to go with the words, shaking Senator Sanders’s hand and grinning broadly.

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The message: We (Democrats) are a united party – even if Mr. Sanders technically isn’t a Democrat – and the Republicans aren’t.

Make no mistake, Mrs. Clinton is not out of the woods on the issue that has dogged her for eight months: Her exclusive use of a private e-mail system while secretary of State, raising questions about whether she put national security at risk. She will testify before a House committee next week on the matter.

But in that moment on the debate stage in Las Vegas, Clinton got a gift. Her support among Democrats has sunk below 50 percent, and her ratings among all voters for honesty and trustworthiness have gone south. Sanders was turning the focus back to the issues – particularly the rising income inequality that drives his campaign – but in the process he neutralized perhaps his biggest argument against Clinton: questions about her character. 

And thus the highly anticipated first Democratic debate stayed focused on policy, in sharp contrast to the large Republican field’s three-ring circus-like quality in its first two debates. Clinton solidified her status as the queen of the Democrats, the odds-on favorite to win her party’s nomination – and, as she reminded viewers several times, positioned to become the first woman president of the United States.

“It’s clear that there was only one person on the stage in Las Vegas who can actually be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee – Hillary Clinton,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Clinton was hungry and improved from her 2008 performances but her competition was beyond weak. The progressive base might love Sanders, but his ‘town crier’ routine will never fly in the general election.”

Sanders's impact

But make no mistake, Sanders is no mere sparring partner for Clinton. He has had a profound impact on the Democratic race. He has electrified liberal stalwarts with his fiery populist rhetoric, drawing huge crowds in contrast with Clinton’s polite turnouts. In the last fundraising quarter, he raised nearly as much as Clinton – $26 million to her $28 million – mostly in small-dollar Internet donations, requiring far-fewer private, high-dollar fundraising events than Clinton.

In the process, Sanders has nudged Clinton – and therefore the party’s center of gravity – to the left on key issues, including trade and climate change. On guns, a rare area where the Vermont senator has been less-than-consistent over the years, Clinton has seized the opportunity to come in to Sanders’s left.

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Last week, Clinton released a sweeping new gun control plan. On Tuesday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper kicked off the debate with a discussion of gun violence, handing Clinton a cudgel with which to beat up Sanders.

“Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?” Mr. Cooper asked Clinton, after going through his mixed record of Senate votes on the matter.

“No, not at all,” Clinton said. “I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”

The attack on the National Rifle Association elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience of Democrats at the Wynn hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Gun-rights supporters warn that Clinton’s shift to the left on firearms could be disastrous to her electability in November 2016. Millions of political independents own guns, and might otherwise be willing to support a Democrat for president, if not for the party’s increasingly anti-gun posture, says Rich Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association in Rindge, N.H.

Flashes of humor

On other issues, Clinton was poised, prepared, and at times showed flashes of humor. During a commercial, which the candidates used for a bathroom break, Clinton returned to the stage a bit later than her four male competitors.

"Secretary Clinton, welcome back," Cooper said.

"Well, thank you," Hillary replied with a grin. "You know, it does take me a little longer. That's all I can say."

Women across the country knew exactly what she meant. And it was yet another reminder that her candidacy is ground-breaking. Toward the end, when asked why voters should embrace an “insider” like her during this year of the outsider, Clinton didn’t flinch.

“Well, I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I'm not just running because I would be the first woman president,” Clinton said to applause.

“I'm running because I have a lifetime of experience in getting results and fighting for people, fighting for kids, for women, for families, fighting to even the odds. And I know what it takes to get things done.”

It was a thoroughly professional performance by an experienced debater on national television. Eight years ago, in her last presidential campaign, Clinton appeared in some two dozen Democratic debates. Sanders and the others – former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee – were all novices Tuesday night.

And while Sanders held his own, there was no knockout punch. Still, his campaign says he raised $1.3 million online in the four hours after the debate started. Sanders, polling strongly in the first two nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire, will remain a force in the 2016 race.

Vice President Joe Biden, waiting in the wings as a possible late entrant into the Democratic nomination sweepstakes, might see Sanders’s inability to dent Clinton as an opening to get in. But perhaps more likely, her polished performance may be just the signal that his services aren’t required.