Hillary Rodham Clinton’s steady, studied debate performance solidified her position as the Democratic presidential front-runner, narrowing Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s prospects of entering the race and dwarfing the aspirations of Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee — none of whom created a moment to stand out on stage.
“The big winner is Clinton. She changed attention, at least for the moment, to policy, which is her strength,” said Jeff Hill, a political science professor at Northeastern Illinois University. “There was one big loser: Biden. He was ready if Clinton stumbled. She did not.”
Mr. Biden watched the debate from Washington as he contemplated a late entry into the race. Mr. Biden met with his family over the weekend at his home in Delaware for a final decision on the matter.
He is expected to make his decision public in the coming weeks, according to various news reports citing unidentified sources close to the family.
When asked Wednesday about his thoughts on the debate, Mr. Biden said: “I thought everyone of those folks did well.”
He gave reporters no indication of his own ambition. Mr. Biden and the president were scheduled for a private lunch later in the day.
Calls for Mr. Biden to enter the race were at a peak a few weeks ago, when Mrs. Clinton was taking heat from her email scandal, her poll and favorability numbers were falling, and donors were doubting her electability. With Tuesday night’s solid performance, and a senior Republican figure suggesting that the Benghazi committee was political in nature, giving her fuel to defend herself, Mrs. Clinton’s wounds seem cauterized — for the moment at least.
“As a matter of pure politics, Clinton’s good night reduced the rationale for Biden’s candidacy,” wrote David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to President Obama’s campaigns in a post-debate analysis for CNN. “After Tuesday, the calls on him to save the party from a weak front-runner will be more muted. He is running third in the polls, and nothing that happened in Tuesday’s debate likely closed that gap.”
Frank Luntz, who hosted a post-debate focus group of 28 Democratic voters, said none missed Mr. Biden on the debate stage.
“The rationale for Biden is weakened,” Mr. Luntz told Politico. “Absence did not make the heart grow fonder. Democratic voters are no different from Republicans: Everyone wants new voices and fresh ideas. And they believe if the vice president wanted to run for his boss’ job, he should have thrown his hat in the ring already.”
In addition, Mr. Luntz’s focus group was not impressed with any of Mrs. Clinton’s challengers on the stage, with the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who they said was “strong” and “straightforward.”
According to the group, Mr. Webb, a former senator from Virginia, and Mr. Chafee, a former Rhode Island governor, shouldn’t participate in the next debate.
“Webb was a disappointment,” said Mr. Hill. “He needed to somehow muscle his way into the discussion, but he did not. Chaffee simply did not distinguish himself in any way.”
One of the most awkward exchanges of the night started when debate moderator Anderson Cooper challenged Mr. Chafee on his vote to repeal the Glass Steagall Act, which made banks bigger.
“I think you’re being a little rough,” Mr. Chafee said to Mr. Cooper. “I’d just arrived at the United States Senate. I’d been mayor of my city. My dad had died. I’d been appointed by the governor. It was the first vote, and it was 90-5 because it was a conference report.”
Mr. Hill predicts that Mr. Webb and Mr. Chafee will drop out of the race soon.
As for Mr. O’Malley, he didn’t deliver the standout performance he needed to break through to the general electorate.
“Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who had hoped to be the progressive alternative to Clinton before being ‘Berned’ by Sanders, had hoped for a breakthrough night,” Mr. Axelrod wrote. “But a decent performance may not have been good enough to lift him from the Valley of the Statistically Insignificant.”
Mr. Hill agreed.
“O’Malley seems capable and increased his visibility, but I see no chance for him to move up appreciably,” Mr. Hill said. “I suspect his candidacy will serve him well if he chooses to run for office in the future, or if he is offered a Cabinet position.”
Preliminary data back up their assessments.
The most mentioned candidates on Twitter, with share of debate conversation, were Mr. Sanders with 41 percent, Mrs. Clinton with 39 percent, and Mr. Webb, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Chafee with less than 10 percent. Mid-debate Twitter data showed that the lower-tier candidates had lost all their momentum. The top candidates of both parties mentioned on Twitter were Mrs. Clinton, followed by Mr. Sanders and then by Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who was live-tweeting the entire debate.