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Another Clinton comeback kid

At the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton reminded everyone that she is a survivor; maybe even a proverbial cat with nine lives.

She survived the implosion of the health care initiative that she spearheaded in President Bill Clinton's first term. She survived the humiliation of her husband's sordid fling with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment. She survived her painfully narrow loss to Barack Obama in the race for her party's nomination in 2008.

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Now, in the face of inside-the-Beltway skeptics who had begun branding her as damaged goods, as stiff and boring, as a frontrunner on the skids, she has delivered a stellar debate performance, reminding everyone why she has always been a formidable political force.

Hillary not only survives, she always finds a way to resurrect herself. After the health care debacle, she came back and became one of the nation's most memorable first ladies. After Bill left the White House hugely popular, but with the Clinton name tarnished, she won election in her own right as U.S. senator from New York. After getting beat by Mr. Obama, she became his secretary of state.

After months of attacks from Republicans over her actions before and after the terrorist incident in Benghazi and her questionable use of a personal email server during her time as secretary of state -- a relentless barrage that had led many Democrats to wonder if they should start looking for an alternative candidate -- she has seized the moment and won the advantage. Ms. Clinton has an upcoming date with the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and instead of it being a dreaded appointment, she is probably eager.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy did Ms. Clinton a big favor by going on Fox News and suggesting the Benghazi committee's biggest accomplishment has been to bring down Hillary's poll numbers. That gaffe laid bare the political obsession driving the committee's work. On Sunday, a former committee staffer said he was fired for failing to focus his research on Hillary. Then, on Wednesday, another GOP congressman, New York Rep. Richard Hanna, added further confirmation of the political chicanery when, on a radio station in his district, he said, "This may not be politically correct, but I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton."

Thus exposed, Republicans on the select committee will be at a huge disadvantage when Ms. Clinton comes to testify. She should have no problem making them look like inept witch hunters if they try to attack, or like wimps if they do not.

However crudely partisan the Republican scrutiny has been, the email mess has hurt Ms. Clinton, giving a serious spike to her "untrustworthy" rating with voters, but at the debate she got a generous reprieve on the issue from her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who declared it time to talk about more important things. "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," Ms. Sanders said. Hillary probably felt like hugging him, but settled for a handshake and a "Thank you, Bernie."

Ms. Clinton has not wrapped up the nomination, of course. Mr. Sanders made gains in the debate, too. He was the favorite with TV focus groups and claims to have raised a quick $2 million from enthusiastic donors within the first 24 hours after the debate. The Vermont senator continues to hold a lead in polls in Iowa, where the first caucus will be held, and in New Hampshire, the site of the first primary. The battle has just begun, but no one is now talking about Hillary's campaign running out of gas. She is revved up and ready to race.

If, on top of everything, Ms. Clinton's debate success discourages her most potent potential rival from joining the contest, that could be the biggest boost of all. Throughout the afternoon on Tuesday, a very powerful ad promoting Vice President Joe Biden ran several times on CNN, the hosting network for the debate. The message was, "Run, Joe" -- a plea to the man who has been agonizing over whether to challenge Ms. Clinton or not. The vice president has been mulling key questions: Does the Democratic Party need him? Is Hillary too damaged? Is there an opening for good old Joe Biden to take one more shot at the presidency?

After the Las Vegas debate, it appears the answer to all three questions is "nope."

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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