The man who wasn't there: How debate affects Joe Biden

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: Hillary Clinton's commanding performance reduces opportunity for Joe Biden to make a difference in Democratic race
  • Axelrod says Sanders had rocky start on guns but then roused his base effectively

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)She did what she needed to do.

David Axelrod
Poised, passionate and in command, Hillary Clinton emerged from Tuesday's debate as a stronger front-runner for the Democratic nomination than she was going in.
    Bernie Sanders also had something to celebrate.
    After a rocky start, punctuated by an awkward exchange over his mixed record on gun safety issues, the senator from Vermont came on strong and rallied his base with rousing jeremiads about inequality and the corrupting power of money in politics. He also brought the house down with a showstopping declaration -- aimed at the media as much as Clinton -- that the "American people are sick and tired of talking about your damned emails."
    Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, who had hoped to be the progressive alternative to Clinton before being "Berned" by Sanders, had hoped for a breakthrough night. But a decent performance may not have been good enough to lift him from the Valley of the Statistically Insignificant.
    First Democratic debate: How did they do?
    First Democratic debate: How did they do?

      JUST WATCHED

      First Democratic debate: How did they do?

    MUST WATCH

    First Democratic debate: How did they do? 03:07
    For two others, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, it was a lost night. They entered largely as unknowns and left leaving many wondering why they were there.
    And then there was the man who wasn't there. Vice President Joe Biden, for whom CNN reserved a podium that went unfilled, continues to weigh a candidacy, pondering the impact such a race would have on his family, still reeling from the loss of his son, Beau.
    But as a matter of pure politics, Clinton's good night reduced the rationale for Biden's candidacy. After Tuesday, the calls on him to save the party from a weak front-runner will be more muted. He is running third in the polls, and nothing that happened in Tuesday's debate likely closed that gap.
    Clinton, looking comfortable and confident, gave a series of strong answers that painted the portrait of a committed, pragmatic progressive, rather than a poseur cobbling together popular, made-for-the primary positions. When Chafee said her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq was disqualifying evidence of poor judgment, she turned the moment by pointing out that President Barack Obama, who opposed the war, trusted her enough to name her secretary of state.
    Clinton made a few mistakes. She denied that she has once called the Trans-Pacific Partnership "the gold standard" for trade agreements, insisting that she merely had said she hoped it would be. That isn't true and was sloppy, giving her opponents another proof point in their assault on her trustworthiness.
    She gave a weak answer on her recent decision to oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline. And while her closing statement spoke to her longing to be a healing force in a divided country, when asked to name her "enemies," she threw out Iran -- and then added the Republicans, which thrilled the room but clashed with the healer motif.
    All in all, though, it was Clinton's night.
    And for that reason, maybe the biggest loser was the man who wasn't there.