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Hillary Clinton silenced her critics

This is the Hillary Clinton that Democrats have been waiting for.

The most important aspect of Clinton's performance in Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, though, wasn't whether she won — she did — but how she connected with progressive Democrats who worry whether she shares their values and whether she can withstand Republican attacks on her policies and character.

She was confident about the substance of her campaign and comfortable in making the case that her policies are the right ones to move the country forward — even if they don't always sound like a wish list for the left.

"I’m a progressive who likes to get things done," she explained when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked her to label her politics.

After a summer of hearing about her email scandal and her ties to Wall Street, the slightly combative retort was a refresher for Democrats on what they like about Clinton: She's smart, prepared, liberal on most issues, and interested in actual progress. Perhaps it took a little competition, but the passion Clinton sometimes lacks on the campaign trail was in full force Tuesday night. She was having fun.

"She was poised, she was passionate, and she was in command," David Axelrod, who ran Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and has been critical of Clinton, said on CNN afterward.

Most importantly, though, Clinton did it all while reaching out to the three segments of the party that form her base: women, African Americans, and Latinos. And in a party that values diversity, those appeals help bring in white men, too.

Black Lives Matter, from the start

The biggest edge Clinton has on her rivals is her ability to go deep on substance, below the surface of her campaign platform, to get at the underlying problems Democrats want to solve. She did that Tuesday when talking about what she'd do for the African-American community, earning an ovation from the debate crowd.

Clinton started with a quick rundown of her goals on criminal justice reform — ending mass incarceration, equipping police with body cameras, and implementing recommendations of a panel created by President Barack Obama — but then she added that those policies are just a part of her plan.

"We've got to do more about the lives of these children. That's why I started off by saying we need to be committed by making it possible for every child to live up to his or her God-given potential," Clinton said. "That is really hard to do if you don't have early childhood education, if you don't have schools able to meet the needs of the people or good housing. There's a long list. We need a new New Deal for communities of color."

Clinton's primary rival, Bernie Sanders, has done well with white voters, but he hasn't shown the ability to rally African Americans or Latinos to his campaign. Clinton's response on race was perhaps her best moment of the night.

Clinton isn't the most liberal on immigration, but she'll fight the GOP

Latino voters were among Clinton's most loyal supporters in the 2008 campaign, even though she's never been the most liberal Democrat on immigration issues.

She turned that potential vulnerability into a strong moment Tuesday night when Cooper pressed her and the other Democrats about their relatively minor differences on immigration policy — specifically her refusal to endorse a proposal by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to give full Obamacare subsidies to unauthorized immigrants.

"There is such a difference between everything you're hearing here on this stage and what we hear from the Republicans, who have demonized hard-working immigrants, who have insulted them," Clinton said.

She also reiterated her vow to go further than Obama in protecting unauthorized immigrants from deportation and said she would support states that give in-state tuition breaks to undocumented students.

That's right. She would be the first woman president.

For most of her 2008 campaign, Clinton avoided calling attention to her gender. It took aides to convince her to embrace that historic aspect of her candidacy at the end of her bid, when she declared that she and her voters had put "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling of the presidency. Now, though, she's looking at her gender as an asset, not a potential liability.

That was never more evident than Tuesday night, when Clinton used it to turn two questions around on Cooper.

Here's the first exchange:

Cooper: "How would you not be a third term of President Obama?"

Clinton: "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."

And the second:

Cooper: "Gov. O'Malley says the presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth between two royal families. This year has been the year of the outsider in politics; just ask Bernie Sanders. Why should Democrats embrace an insider like yourself?"

Clinton: "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."

Clinton was interrupted by applause before she finished the thought by casting herself as a fighter who has "a lifetime of experience in getting results."

But Clinton's concentration on empowering women — which she convincingly argues should be important to all Americans — put her in position to nail a trifecta of issues that Democrats care about in a single response to a question about the cost of creating new benefits. She defended paid leave, government programs, and Planned Parenthood in one fell swoop, while also getting in a dig at the GOP.

"It's always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide health care,'" she said. "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."

This is exactly what Clinton had to do

Clinton's never going to be the perfect candidate for the left wing of the Democratic Party. She's too much of a capitalist, too willing to use military force, and too willing to shift positions to make all liberals love her. But she can be inspiring on a lot of issues that do matter to progressives and good enough on most of the others.

What she needed to do Tuesday night was three-pronged: remind Democrats of what they like about her, reassure them that she's on their side, and convince them that she's the most likely to win the general election. There wasn't anyone else on the stage Tuesday night who is nearly as plausible a president.

At one point, Clinton noted that after years of congressional investigation into the Benghazi attacks and her emails, "I am still standing."

She was delivering, too.