WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton's polished performance in the first Democratic debate did more than send a message to her primary rivals. It was a warning to the chaotic Republican field about her likely strength in a general election.
Clinton solidified her shift toward more liberal positions on trade, gun control and immigration, but still stayed largely in step with the battleground state voters she'll need in November 2016. She also positioned herself as heir to the coalition of women, Hispanics and black voters that propelled Barack Obama to the White House, and she potentially held off a late challenge from Vice President Joe Biden.
"I'm a progressive," she declared before a television audience of more than 15 million people. "But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done."
The Republicans' raucous first two debates, meanwhile, exposed the party's deep divisions and the pressure on GOP candidates to appease conservative primary voters. That could again leave the eventual nominee scrambling to recalibrate on issues including immigration and women's health in order to win over a national electorate that is more racially and ideologically diverse than primary voters.
It's a familiar conundrum for the party, yet one potentially deepened by the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, candidates whose inflammatory comments seem to only boost their standing in the primary. Candidates who are favored by more traditional Republicans, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, risk being associated with the rhetoric of their rivals — or never find a way to overtake them.
The GOP contenders scrambled Wednesday to blunt the notion that Clinton has positioned herself as a general election force. Rubio said Clinton was locked in "a race to the left to see who could be the most radically liberal, the most big-government." And Bush cast Clinton as the beneficiary of a Democratic field that sidestepped confrontations over her private email use, a controversy that has dogged her campaign for months.
"In a partisan crowd you could see how that would work out, but I don't think Mrs. Clinton's been forthcoming and I think she has created a problem for herself by not being forthcoming," Bush said Wednesday night while campaigning in New Hampshire. "It is a big deal, and there needs to be some clarity on it."
Added Trump, "I think the Democrats, frankly, I think they are protecting her."
Clinton aides insist the former secretary of state isn't taking the Democratic nomination for granted. While her strong debate performance may have hardened her standing as the party's front-runner, she still faces tough competition from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
Yet Clinton left no doubt that she's setting her sights on the GOP field.
"I can take the fight to the Republicans, because we cannot afford a Republican to succeed Barack Obama as president of the United States," she said. She referenced Republicans a dozen times during the two-hour debate, even putting the party alongside the Iranians and National Rifle Association on a list of enemies she was proud to have made.
David Plouffe, an architect of Obama's two campaigns, wrote on Twitter that Clinton looked like a candidate who could win the general election.
"That is a test for GOP," he added, questioning who in the party can attract voters in Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and other general election battlegrounds.
To be sure, Clinton remains a flawed candidate. Her evolving policy positions leave her open to charges that she shifts with the political winds. She's a Washington insider in an election cycle where voters have shown more interest in outsiders. And she continues to grapple with questions about her email practices at the State Department.
Yet Clinton has been handed two gifts on the email issue from her political opponents. She often brings up Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's boast about the political damage to her campaign caused by the congressional panel that uncovered her email practices, citing it as evidence of partisanship. And the frustration Sanders expressed in the debate with the amount of attention focused on the emails blunted the prospect that she'll be challenged on the issue from within her own party.
Republicans argue that Clinton still has vulnerabilities that would hurt her in the general election, including shifts to the left on major issues — a version of the problem the GOP contenders could face after focusing on the right for their primary.
"She is now firmly outside the mainstream of the American electorate as part of her calculating efforts to satisfy the liberal base of her party," said Kevin Madden, who advised 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's campaign.
Democratic strategists, however, argue that what were once viewed as liberal policies are increasingly becoming mainstream. Public polling supports that assertion on some issues.
On immigration, a CBS News/New York Times poll last month showed 58 percent of Americans said people living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, a position Clinton supports.
On the contentious issue of gun control, Americans overwhelmingly support expanding background checks for ownership, a proposal Clinton touted in the debate. A Pew Research Center poll from July showed 85 percent — including 87 percent of respondents in gun-owning households — support broader background checks.
Majorities of Americans also support government efforts to combat climate change, and they approve of gay marriage, positions backed by Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates.
AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in New Hampshire contributed to this report.
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