While the first Democratic debate was, in theory, intended to create contrast among the party’s candidates, frontrunner Hillary Clinton wanted viewers to walk away with another message: Republicans are the real enemy and she is the one to take them on.
Time and time again on the Las Vegas stage, the former secretary of state pivoted from the nuanced differences between her and her Democratic foes to slam the GOP for being far behind where she and progressives want to lead the country.
The strategy — more subtle in some moments, not at all at others — let her rise above the Democratic scrum while telegraphing to primary voters that she was best positioned to take on the GOP nominee in the general election. While her Democratic rivals were taking swipes at her, she signaled that she was focused on preparing for the bigger battle.
More than any other candidate in the debate, Hillary invoked Republicans and the general election fight ahead — and she did it early, often, and consistently throughout the debate.
Socioeconomic inequalities has been a touchstone of Clinton’s campaign, and she didn’t waste an opportunity to hit Republicans on the issue right, while deflecting a question about her own 1 percent-er status.
“I have a five point economic plan, because this inequality challenge we face…It hasn’t been this bad since the 1920s,” Clinton said. “But if you look at the Republicans versus the Democrats when it comes to economic policy, there is no comparison. The economy does better when you have a Democrat in the White House and that’s why we need to have a Democrat in the White House in January 2017.”
She invoked the comparison again on immigration, when the Democrats were parsing out the the details of their immigration reform stances and what government programs they would let undocumented immigrants participate in.
“I want to follow up because I think underneath Juan Carlos’ important questions, there is such a difference between everything you’re hearing here on this stage, and what we hear from the Republicans,” she said, slamming GOP candidates who “demonize hard-working immigrants.”
And when abortion rights and the GOP’s attack of Planned Parenthood had not been brought up nearly two hours into the debate, Clinton took it upon herself when answering a separate question on paid family leave to call out Republicans’ “constant refrain ‘big government this, big government that,’ except for what they want to impose on the American people.”
“They don’t mind have big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and take down Planned Parenthood,” she said, in one of her biggest applause lines of the night. “They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of that.”
She returned to the theme once again in her closing remarks:
“I think what you did see is that in this debate, we tried to deal with some of the very tough issues facing our country. That’s in stark contrast to the Republicans, who are currently running for president,” she said. “What you have to ask yourself is who amongst us has the vision for actually making the changes that are going to improve the lives of the American people, who has the tenacity and the ability and the proven track record of getting that done.”
The subtext — that Clinton was the candidate that GOP should fear most — became text when she was asked who was the enemy she was most proud of having.
“In addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians — probably the Republicans,” she said.