Will Hillary Clinton's pitch at Iowa town hall backfire?

Story highlights

  • Democratic candidates for president took part in a town hall discussion in Iowa on Monday
  • Frida Ghitis: Hillary Clinton seemed determined to embrace President Obama's legacy

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Hillary Clinton roared to a clear victory in the Iowa town hall Monday night, coming across as energetic, articulate, knowledgeable and experienced. I never thought I'd find myself commenting on the clothing choices of female political candidates (men have almost no choices to make) but in this case, Clinton's red top underscored her fiery presentation. For once, the men may have wished they had worn red jackets!

There was, however, a downside for Clinton in her triumph -- the once seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee opted to tie herself ever more closely to President Barack Obama's foreign policy. Indeed, come the general election, Clinton's full-throated defense of the controversial Iran deal and other foreign policy choices will make it that much harder to distance herself from the broader historic catastrophe of the unraveling of the Middle East that has unfolded during Obama's watch.
    Frida Ghitis
    Still, with a surging challenge from the left in the form of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton may have felt she had no choice but to embrace Obama's legacy more closely in an effort to earn the vote of party activists and other committed Democrats. The polls show Democrats, by massive majorities, have backed Obama's performance throughout his presidency. To secure the nomination, then, Clinton may need to become Obama's candidate, even if in the fall campaign she faces a general public among which less than half the voters are satisfied with the current administration.
    Fortunately for Clinton, the task of drumming up Democratic support by aligning herself with the President was made easier just hours before the town hall began when Obama gave an interview that sounded close to an endorsement, "[The] one thing everybody understands is that this job right here, you don't have the luxury of just focusing on one thing," the President said, in what sounded like a dig at Sanders, who has made the fight against income inequality the focus of his campaign.

    Sanders' 'political revolution'

    Sanders, of course, showed why he has excited so many voters. The event format was not designed to produce blockbuster ratings by creating clashes between the candidates. Instead, it looked like a series of job interviews for the presidency; a fitting format for Iowa's voters, who take their democratic responsibilities very seriously.
    In Sanders they, and viewers at home, saw a man who displays a singular level of unrehearsed honesty and a clear commitment to fighting against a wrong that troubles him (as it undoubtedly does many Americans). As Sanders reminded everyone, in the aftermath of the multibillion dollar bank bailouts that followed the subprime lending and the widespread pain of the Great Recession, it is nothing short of infuriating that the people who created the mess received millions of dollars in bonuses. This even as life became harder for many Americans and as inequalities continued to grow.
    Sanders declared "we need a political revolution." And, when asked to explain what it means to be a democratic socialist -- a label not normally embraced by voters in the world's most successful capitalist economy -- Sanders did a convincing job of explaining that democratic socialism means "economic rights, the right to economic security, should exist in the United States of America," adding that "it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90% -- almost-- own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%."
    When questioned about his lack of foreign policy experienced compared with Clinton, Sanders pointed to his vote against the war in Iraq. On the question of how the next president could get anything done in the current climate of partisanship, Sanders said his track record in government proves he can get legislation approved. But it was difficult not to notice that Clinton offered a more extensive explanation about why her foreign policy expertise mattered, explaining how results comes down to relationships, and adding that she knows how to find common ground and build ties.

    O'Malley was merely halftime

    The time in the spotlight for the third Democrat in the race, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, amounted to little more than a break between the two halves of the main event. O'Malley may be hoping that the complicated rules of the Iowa caucuses will produce a miracle for his campaign, but it was difficult to see what he offers that is more compelling than the two alternatives. He certainly tried to look the part, even taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves in a moment that seemed right out of an old "West Wing" episode -- clearly rehearsed and by now something of cliché.
    Unfortunately for the governor, the more "mature" candidates offered plenty of dynamism of their own, even if it came packaged under more wrinkles.