5 Ways the First Democratic Debate Changed the 2016 Presidential Race

The stage may have been less crowded, but the stakes were just as high.

ByABC News
October 14, 2015, 2:21 PM

— -- The stage may have been less crowded, but the stakes were just as high.

The five candidates on stage Tuesday night for the first Democratic debate –- less than half of the 11 on stage for the most recent Republican debate –- had a lot to prove.

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton reasserted herself as the dominant force in the race. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders played to his base, but likely didn’t do much to expand it.

The other three –- Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee –- likely didn’t do anything to earn them a share of the spotlight, especially as speculation continued to swirl around the potential candidacy of Joe Biden.

Still, debates have been major turning points in the Republican presidential race so far –- rocketing Carly Fiorina into the top tier and damaging the candidacy of Scott Walker.

Now that the dust has settled on the debate stage in Las Vegas, we take a look at where we can expect the Democratic race to go from here:

1. Hillary Clinton Regains Her Footing

After a summer of stumbling and sliding, Clinton seems to have caught her balance.

Questions had swirled about whether a lackluster debate performance could threaten Clinton’s lead entirely. Her sweeping 40-point lead has been cut in half over the last three months as Bernie Sanders chips away and her email controversy continues to make headlines.

But anyone expecting the former Secretary of State to try to coast through the debate - hesitant to engage and aiming to come across as above her opponents - was in for a surprise.

Clinton delivered a passionate, poised performance, clearly willing to distinguish herself from Sanders and the field.

“No. Not at all,” she crisply said when asked whether Sanders was tough enough on gun control.

National polls have already showed Clinton’s support starting to level off. A new Fox News poll out yesterday showed Clinton holding steady at 45 percent -– virtually identical to one month ago.

2. Clinton’s Emails Won’t Be A Problem (For Now)

It looks like friendly fire over emails won't stand in the way of Clinton's path to the nomination -– but she’s far from done with the issue.

“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” started Sanders. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

“Me too, me too,” Clinton said, grinning ear to ear and giving Sanders a firm handshake.

A follow-up attempt at an attack by Chafee –- saying credibility and ethical standards are important for the next president –- fell flat. “No,” Clinton bluntly replied when asked whether she wanted to respond to Chafee. In the next response, O’Malley pivoted to college affordability.

And with that, one of Clinton’s biggest liabilities in the race for President had been swiftly dismissed with more support than criticism.

But Clinton is not out of the woods.

Republicans continue to hammer her over her emails, and independents are listening. In a CBS/NYT poll earlier this week, more than six in 10 independents say they are mostly dissatisfied with Clinton’s explanation of why she used a personal email server. Only one in four are satisfied.

Republican Jeb Bush wasted no time this morning, saying “I would have taken her to task for [her private email server.] And if she wins the nomination and I win the nomination, trust me, this is not going to end.”

3. Joe Biden: Too Little, Too Late?

Is the door closing for Joe Biden –- or was the door never open to begin with?

It’s not clear how yesterday’s debate might affect Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to run for president -– if at all. But with Clinton likely solidifying her support with a strong performance and Sanders’ supporters happy with what they saw last night, it’s not clear where the Vice President would find a lane to continue garnering support.

A CBS/NYT poll earlier this week showed Biden with about 16 percent support -- a solid start in a small field, but still a broad 30 points behind Clinton.

Martin O'Malley has been in race for months and performed well at the debate, but still hasn’t found a way to chip away at either Clinton’s or Sanders’ constituencies.

Biden is expected to make a final decision on jumping into the race any day now. He would need to move very quickly to set up campaign infrastructure in early states, secure a donor base and meet the first filing deadlines now just two weeks away.

4. All’s Well That Ends Well

Even though the Democratic side has only a quarter of the total 2016 candidates, it’s possible the next candidate to drop out of the presidential race could be a Democrat.

While Scott Walker and Rick Perry have called it quits on the Republican side, it’s not clear if – or when – Jim Webb or Lincoln Chafee might end their bids for the White House.

Chafee struggled to explain his vote on Glass-Steagall, saying he had just been appointed to the senate. “I had just arrived,” he said. “It was my very first vote.” Moderator Anderson Cooper asked whether he didn’t know what he was voting on. “I think you’re being a little rough,” Chafee said.

And Jim Webb spent much of his night angling for more speaking time. “Can I get in the discussion at some point?” he asked after going 10 minutes without speaking. “I've been standing over here for ten minutes trying. It's gone back and forth over there.”

Chafee has polling at less than 1 percent in eight consecutive national polls over the last month, while Webb is averaging around 1 percent in recent polling.

Still the Republican side has even more “1 percent” candidates –- Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Jim Gilmore and Lindsey Graham are all polling at less than 1 percent nationally.

5. A Tale Of Two Presidential Fields

It’s apples and oranges in the race for 2016.

One side is navigating a splintered field, dominated by an anti-establishment candidate who deals personal attacks on a dynamic and personal debate stage. The eventual nominee is anything but clear: the two leading candidates have no experience in elected office and the establishment favorite has fallen out of the top tier.

On the other side, the establishment candidate has also been slipping to an outsider, but it’s clear now that Hillary Clinton will not be in Jeb Bush’s current position any time soon. Clinton is competing in the narrowest non-incumbent field in recent memory, the lead – in a field that drew clear distinctions on the debate stage but was hesitant to go fully on the attack –- now coming back firmly into her grip.

If Clinton’s gradual decline was causing our views of the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination races to blur together -- both unpredictable, open races -- that isn’t the case anymore.