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Democratic debate: 6 takeaways from Las Vegas

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Story highlights

Bernie Sanders on the debate stage is a different ballgame than a Sanders rally

Clinton was well-prepared and able to deflect criticism from the other four candidates

Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee struggled to get any message across

CNN —  

It was a victorious comeback for Hillary Clinton, a front-runner who has been on the downswing.

The former secretary of state and first lady, who once came within a few cracks of shattering the glass ceiling to win a major party’s presidential nomination, stepped on to a debate stage once more Tuesday night. But this time, it was to ask the American people to allow her to succeed the very man who had crushed her White House dreams seven years ago.

In the first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle hosted by CNN and Facebook in Las Vegas, Clinton faced off against four others trying to make the same case. But it was only the rival standing to Clinton’s immediate right – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent call for a political revolution has electrified the liberal base — that shared her spotlight.

Here are CNN’s key takeaways:

The return of the favorite (She’s back)

Hillary Clinton hadn’t set foot on a national debate stage in seven years.

But far from seeming out of practice, it appeared as though she had been preparing for Tuesday night since her last failed White House bid.

For more than two hours, the Democratic front-runner showed off the very skills that made her so formidable in the more than the two dozen debates she participated in ahead of the 2008 election, offering crisp, confident and fluent answers on a wide range of policy issues.

Challenged on whether she is a progressive or a moderate, Clinton sought to link herself with the liberal wing Bernie Sanders represents without getting too attached to his brand of democratic socialism.

“I’m a progressive,” Clinton responded. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

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More than anyone else on stage, it was Sanders that Clinton used most willingly to show off her dexterity. Given her first opportunity to take a jab at the Vermont senator, Clinton didn’t miss a beat.

“No. Not at all,” Clinton responded when asked whether Sanders has been tough enough on guns.

Later, when Sanders remarked that he doesn’t support American troops in Syria, Clinton interrupted. “Well, nobody does,” she said. “Nobody does, Sen. Sanders.”

Clinton also seemed to want to tackle a major criticism that dogged her candidacy seven years ago: that she can come across as robotic and cold. She kicked off the debate by invoking her family — “I’m the granddaughter of a factory worker and the grandmother of a wonderful one-year-old child,” she said — and ended the debate with a reference to her late mother.

She also brought up her gender, noting twice that she’d be the first woman President. And during a high point for the audience, she lambasted Republicans for targeting Planned Parenthood and offered a crisp defense of the embattled organization.

A different stage for Bernie

Sanders on the debate stage is a different ballgame than a Bernie rally.

Yes, he brought his style – which means he yelled, he gesticulated and he played the role of explainer. But the debate hall was more sedate than his massive rallies, and the intrusion of his opponents and the moderators placed a reality check on what Sanders prefers - a stream of conscious lecture.

Sanders promised to explain Democratic socialism to America and pointed admiringly to Nordic countries for their liberalism. But while the praise of Denmark might work in New Hampshire, on the debate stage in Nevada, Clinton reminded him that this is America.

On guns, he seemed unprepared for a challenge from Clinton that he should have known was coming. It’s an issue where his record has been at odds with the liberals who are fueling his campaign. And Jim Webb subtly challenged him when he said that the revolution Sanders is waiting for wasn’t going to happen and Congress wouldn’t pay for his agenda.

His best moment was when he decided enough was enough with the talk of Clinton’s private email server as Secretary of State, underscoring her argument that people “are sick and tired of your damn e-mails.” It was a moment of humor laced with Sanders trademark fire. But it was also a reminder that if he is to grow as a candidate, Sanders will need Clinton’s voters.

RELATED: Trump: Sanders made ‘big mistake’ on Clinton emails

Democrats stick to the Reagan Rule

For the viewers who were hoping for mudslinging and finger-pointing, what they got Tuesday night was more like a session of Model U.N.

Though the Democratic candidates on stage at times disagreed on politically sensitive issues including gun control, the Iraq War and Wall Street regulations, the sharp personal attacks that dominated the Republican debates were nowhere to be seen.