Democrats Duel in Sin City

When the presidential debate calendar was released earlier this year one suspects that a certain locale quickly caught the eye of stressed out campaign staffers and expense-account carrying political reporters everywhere. Las Vegas.

So while visions of single-deck blackjack, spa wraps, overpriced premium vodka and tickets to the Blue Man Group (or, ahem, Crazy Girls) danced in their heads, the more cynical of us in the Silver State thought something else, "I wonder how many clichés this debate will inspire?"

Unlike previous debate sites, Vegas provides pundits everywhere easy to use one-liners. I mean, Bill Richardson turns in another poor performance and analysts have their choice of gambling themes like "He was rolling snake eyes all night long," or the all-time classic "You know his campaign has got to be hoping 'What happens here, stays here.'" It allows reporters everywhere a chance to explore their inner Shecky Greene.

Of course there was more to Thursday's CNN Democratic debate than enduring all the poker and Sin City references in the buildup to the main event. This was, after all, the debate where Hillary Clinton could prove she was still on top of her game. After her stumble at Drexel last month, many thought a crack in the Clinton armor had been exposed.

For Nevada Democrats, though, the crack apparently never appeared as two polls released this week showed Clinton with huge leads over her closest challenger, Barack Obama. Zogby had Hillary ahead by 18, while CNN gave her a 28-point advantage.

So did Clinton bounce back?

Yes.

Though not overpowering, Clinton managed to stay on message, mix it up with Obama and John Edwards and get off the sound bite of the night. In other words, a return to form.

But the surprise performance of the night probably went to Joe Biden. Clearly at ease, and having fun, the Senator from Delaware had the kind of debate Obama and Edwards needed but didn't achieve.

Another candidate who probably helped himself a little was Richardson. A disappointment in most of the previous debates, the New Mexico Governor did stumble early on with tired lines like "Give peace a chance" and "I want to be the education president," but bounced back late in the debate, especially on immigration. His bit about how he would tell the Mexican government to "give jobs to your people" instead of "maps" to enter the United States was especially strong. He also had more camera time than Edwards.

Winners: Clinton and Biden.

While Clinton didn't overwhelm any candidate tonight, she didn't have to. All she needed was to get back on track, and she succeeded. After blunting attacks early on, she coasted through the debate unharmed for the rest of the evening. Given her frontrunner status, her camp has to be happy.

Biden had his best debate of the season tonight. Blending a lot of humor with solid, presidential-sounding answers on Pakistan, Supreme Court appointments and what voters actually care about, he easily had the strongest night of any candidate.

Losers: While no candidate made any devastating errors, by virtue of not successfully rattling Clinton, Obama and Edwards fall into this category by default.

Although Obama seemed to get stronger near the end, his opening salvo against Clinton on healthcare fell flat as not only did she strike back quickly, but he also seemed to have problems actually explaining his plan. But his worst moment was his tortured response to the simple question of whether illegal immigrants should have drivers licenses. Wolf Blitzer asked for a "yes or no" and instead got what will surely be made fun of on YouTube tomorrow morning.

After engaging Clinton early on, Edwards seemed to drop off the stage. Needing to score some kind of knockout, or at least a TKO, Edwards instead was relegated to second-tier status in the time allotted. And when he did get a chance to go back on the offensive late in the night, he was booed after likening Clinton to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Overall, a disappointing night for his campaign.

Chris Dodd also was virtually invisible during the evening, though he did bring some cheers when he stated the No Child Left Behind act was "a disaster."

Best Line: Biden had by far the most, but the biggest crowd reaction of the night went to Clinton when questioned on whether she thought the men were picking on her. Telling the audience she wasn't playing the "gender card here in Las Vegas, but the winning card" brought the first round of applause. But it was the followup, "They're not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead," that will be the line played over and over the next few days.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role: If sound bites were votes, Biden would be the prohibitive favorite come November 2008. Whether it was facial expressions or one-liners, nobody generated as many laughs or seemed more at ease than Biden. Though he only logged a little over nine minutes in actual face time (courtesy of Chris Dodd's Talk Clock), it seemed like more. His "Hell no, I wouldn't support any of these guys" joke will probably be featured in numerous 11 o'clock newscasts around the country.

Worst Performance in a Supporting Role: With his schtick, and poll numbers, more and more resembling Mike Gravel's, one has to think Dennis Kucinich's days as an invited debate participant are numbered. Though his quip about why he voted against the Patriot Act ("That's because I read it.") was a highlight for him, his overall performance was akin to buying something off eBay and discovering the seller was a smoker. The product was as expected, but it still stunk.

Worst Question Ever: Intended to bring back memories of the great "Boxers or briefs?" question asked of Bill many years ago, tonight's finale of "Diamonds or pearls?" to Hillary not only was a groaner, but had UNLV grads hiding in shame nationwide. (For the record, she chose both.)

The Anon Guy blogs at Dullard Mush and Campaign Emails.