Hillary Clinton's 'Smart Girl' Triumph

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas October 13. Appealing to women was a huge part of Clinton's strategy at the debate, as well as dodging Wall Street. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

With all due respect to the gentlemanly Bernie Sanders and the hardworking pundits, not much doubt remains about who the Democratic nominee will be.

Bernie Sanders glowered on her right. Martin O'Malley ground his teeth to her left like a man chained to the podium. Lincoln Chafee, looking like a scarecrow in a suit and Jim Webb waking annoyed hovered on the sidelines. Absent a charmer like Obama, Hillary Clinton glowed like a winner. Her laugh, high-wattage smile and confidence left little question that it will take a lot more than emails to knock her down.

The only remaining avenue for inquiry is how does she win the whole thing?

One answer is encapsulated in a tweet from Clinton loyalist Paul Begala early in the day: #thesmartgirlintheroom.

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Clinton clearly intends to make gender a pillar of her campaign strategy. Last night in Vegas, she appealed to the vast numbers of unenthusiastic women—including many Democrats—who, unlike the majority of African-Americans in 2008, just can't seem to get wholeheartedly behind one of their own.

In the first 15 seconds of her first remarks, she framed herself as "the granddaughter of a factory worker and the grandmother of a wonderful 1-year-old child." She added, "And every day, I think about what we need to do to make sure that opportunity is available not just for her, but for all of our children." She concluded, "and, yes, finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president."

Over the course of the polite, substantive two-hour debate, Clinton delivered the memes to come: "I'm a progressive but a progressive who gets things done."..."God-given potential"..."Even the playing field...."

But she kept returning to her gender, thrice reminding people that she is poised to become the first women in the Oval Office. When CNN's Anderson Cooper asked why her term wouldn't be Obama's third, she replied, "Well, I think that's pretty obvious. I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we've had up until this point, including President Obama." Asked whether she wasn't an insider, she parried: "Well, I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I'm not just running because I would be the first woman president."

A swipe at the Republicans regarding Planned Parenthood was another appeal to women, and retweet clickbait for feminist activists this morning. "They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it!"

If any doubt remained that Clinton was flipping the woman card, there was the over-extended break toward the end of the debate. "All the candidates are back, which I'm very happy to see," Cooper said, after an unexpectedly long hiatus just before final remarks. Clinton, apparently the cause of the delay, smiled and said, "Well thank you. You know, it does take me a little longer. That's all I can say." The exchange prompted Slate to post the transcript under the headline: "Hillary Clinton Makes First Known Presidential Debate Reference to How Long it Takes Women to Pee." Women, as they say, do get that.

The Vegas debate introduced a more relaxed woman than the nation probably expected. The new persona began to emerge during her time at State, and is on display in candid interviews she did for a 2015 film about Richard Holbrooke, The Diplomat. The debate was probably the first time most Americans had a chance to see how she's evolved since the start of a cloistered campaign in which she appeared to have reverted to the protective crouch of the First Lady years.

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There was a time everybody knew when Clinton was mad. She deployed a scary, steely look on any interlocutor—almost always a journalist, sometimes a questioning Congressional committee member—daring to ask questions manufactured by the vast right-wing conspiracy. Americans got to know that look well. But in the decades since Monica and Whitewater, Clinton has relinquished it, or at least stopped deploying it in public. There was barely a trace of it last night. She reacted to jabs and Anderson Cooper's tougher questions with a smile and, often, a laugh.

The last laugh, apparently.

Conventional wisdom assessed her the winner. "Clinton crushes it" is the headline in Politico. Bernie Sanders got at least as much, if not more passionate applause from the audience, but with her massive war-chest, her seemingly clear path to the nomination comes with a caveat emptor for the base.

She cracked a glass ceiling last night, not, though, the Glass-Steagall test. If anything, she confirmed the suspicions of the Democratic base, now so feeling the Bern, that she is not anything other than an establishment tool, a creature of Davos, a friend of the bankers, a driven woman who has not been behind a steering wheel herself in 25 years.

Next to Sanders's full-throated roars about the 1 percent, and O'Malley's attacks on the banks, Clinton came off as slippery and timid. Sanders has courageously removed the stigma from socialism in American politics. Answering Cooper's question about that issue, he said: "[W]hat Democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent—almost—own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent." Cooper—apropos of Sanders's declaration—asked everyone onstage whether they were capitalists. Clinton passed the test by pointing out that small businesses make "a good living" for American families. Thanks to Bernie, though, the audience had already been reminded that for an elite slice of Americans sitting atop an incredible proportion of the nation's wealth, a "good living" means something very different.

Related: Democratic Presidential Contenders Throw Down in Nevada

Later, Bernie and O'Malley boxed Clinton into a corner, forcing an unseemly wriggle. Both O'Malley and Sanders want to reinstate Glass-Steagall—the Depression-era banking law repealed in 1999 that prevented commercial banks from engaging in investment banking and insurance activities. O'Malley turned to face her and said: "You are not for putting a firewall between this speculative, risky shadow banking behavior. I am."

Clinton hesitated and in that split second, attentive viewers could literally see the politician making the calculation to pivot—to the weather.

"Well, you know, everybody on this stage has changed a position or two." she said. "But I have been on the forefront of dealing with climate change, starting in 2009, when President Obama and I crashed (ph) a meeting with the Chinese and got them to sign up to the first international agreement to combat climate change that they'd ever joined. So I'm....not taking a back seat to anybody on my values."

Anderson Cooper let Glass-Steagall die, right there, as she knew he would. The clock had run on that topic. When a Democratic candidate for president can blunt a question about banks with "climate change" and "values," you know she's ready for prime time.