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Clinton hits it over a short porch

That mild breeze spreading across the country shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday night could surely be traced to the collective exhalation of Hillary Clinton supporters. For all those who thought Ms. Clinton would be brittle or defensive, uncomfortable or combative, it never happened. Still leading the polls but having stumbled in recent months, she needed to merely get on base in the first Democratic debate and instead, she knocked it out of the park — prepared, poised and, for lack of a better word, presidential.

Except, of course, Ms. Clinton is not the Cubs and her opponents are definitely not the St. Louis Cardinals — or perhaps even major leaguers. Before Democrats get too giddy over how well their leading candidate fared in Las Vegas (and how their debate was much more substantive than those wild and crazy Republicans), they need to look around and consider the minor leaguers occupying the four other podiums. Two were hopeless, one was better than expected and the fourth may be exciting the millennials but still looks ill-suited for a general election.

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For those keeping a scorecard at home, that was former Sens. Lincoln "My father had just died" Chafee and Jim "I've been waiting for 10 minutes" Webb who most underwhelmed, which is actually a shame because while they may be 1-percenters in the polls, they are also the least given to parrot liberal orthodoxy. Maryland's own former Gov. Martin O'Malley actually may have been the evening's greatest surprise (granted, expectations were in the lowly Chafee-Webb territory for him prior to the debate, too) with a strong presentation on guns and a memorable closing, though he lacks much of an answer for the unrest in the city he once led. That leaves Sen. Bernie Sanders who was forced on the defensive early and often seemed ill at ease — although Sanders supporters like that everyman quality in their mildly grumpy, capitalism-averse, Larry David-sounding anti-politician.

Credit Mr. Sanders with the evening's most memorable quote, which was destined to send the twitterverse into rapture: "I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your [Ms. Clinton's] damn emails." That's a great line considering all the virtual ink that's been spilled by Republicans over the former secretary of state's server, but not necessarily if you are a candidate looking to overtake her in the polls. The Vermont senator looked like someone who didn't take a lot of guff from the GOP but was not about to disrespect his primary opponent.

All of which points to the same problem facing Democrats that may yet motivate Vice President Joe Biden to join the fray: There's not much in this field to truly challenge Ms. Clinton and, even if she's the nominee, that's not necessarily to her benefit. When her leading opponent holds office as an independent, not a Democrat, proudly declares himself a socialist (a viewpoint that ranks below atheism in Gallup polls evaluating what voters want in their next president) and seems to operate on one emotional gear — anger — that's what sports fans might call a weak field. It's pulling Ms. Clinton to the left (she happily accepted the label of "progressive" early in the debate), which may come back to haunt her in the general election.

Recently, President Barack Obama speculated that, were the U.S. Constitution to allow it, he could win a third term. He might be right. And that makes it a little disconcerting to see the headliners in the Democratic field reject so many of his policy compromises from Syria to immigration to NSA surveillance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as essentially being too conservative. Is there truly nothing left of Bill Clinton's "third way" approach? How ironic that his wife might be the person putting a final nail in the coffin of Democratic moderation.

Still, no one should underestimate the wing-nuttiness of the GOP field, which is currently topped by two "outsiders" with a penchant for acts of unapologetic and ill-informed outrageousness. Should either Donald Trump or Ben Carson earn their party's nomination, we don't expect a nuanced conversation with the electorate next fall and are likely to look back at moments like Tuesday's debate rather fondly. Remember when we talked about Glass-Steagall banking regulations and the candidates knew what that meant? Ah, those were the days.

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