WASHINGTON >> Bernie Sanders’ campaign said it raised nearly $2 million from the first Democratic debate of the 2016 race, and social media metrics showed he was the most-searched candidate on Google and most-discussed on Facebook and Twitter.
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s backers celebrated the day after what some said was the best two hours of her campaign.
"We were over the moon," said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Clinton backer who’d traveled to Las Vegas to watch the first such confrontation between the 2016 Democratic nomination contenders. On morning cable news programs, Granholm could barely contain her glee. "It was such a great night," she said on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe."
Both Sanders and Clinton were looking to build Wednesday on their strong Democratic presidential debate performances as the rest of the field struggled to gain traction. The debate commanded by Clinton and Sanders appeared to narrow any opening for a presidential bid by Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic strategists said. Biden watched the Tuesday matchup from Washington.
"I was proud," he said Wednesday during a White House meeting on infrastructure. "I thought every one of those folks last night — my own prejudice — I thought they all did well."
A day after aggressively defending her long public service record and contrasting it with that of Sanders, Clinton remained in Nevada, talking to local media in the early voting state.
Sanders was scheduled to attend a taping of "The Ellen Degeneres Show," which has become a popular stop for presidential hopefuls. The campaign is mapping out a strategy to convert its fundraising and enthusiasm into a winning organization that can compete in the early states and a slate of "Super Tuesday" states on March 1.
In another sign of its maturing operation, the campaign has hired Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin, whose past clients have included former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, former California Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.
"This campaign is in it for the long haul. This is not a flash in the pan campaign," said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver. "We’re going to have the resources to go all the way to the convention."
Sanders also delivered the night’s most memorable line — a comment that came across as a defense of Clinton, who has faced a summer of bad headlines and an FBI investigation into her practice of exclusively using a personal email address and server while she was secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
"This may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right," Sanders said. "And that is that the American people are sick of hearing about your damn emails."
Clinton laughed and heartily shook his hand as the live audience of mostly Democrats erupted in cheers. By Wednesday morning, Sanders was displaying a clip of the exchange on his Facebook page.
The CNN debate, co-sponsored by Facebook, stretched for more than two hours and had more than 15 million viewers.
The audience was smaller than the record-setting 24 million who watched the first 2016 Republican debate on Fox News. Yet in a news release, CNN said the debate broke the previous Democratic debate record of 10.7 million viewers when Obama and Clinton squared off on ABC in 2008.
With millions of voters tuned in, the other three candidates on stage searched for a way to break out.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told CNN on Wednesday his debate performance showed that "more than two candidates" are seeking the nomination.
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, meanwhile, faced questions about his viability. In an interview with CNN, he pushed back against the notion that his campaign would be short-lived, saying, "I’m in it for as long as I can continue to raise these issues. They’re important."
David Axelrod, an unaligned Democratic strategist who helped mastermind Obama’s 2008 campaign, said on Wednesday Clinton emerged stronger with a "very self-assured, powerful performance" that should give Biden pause, while Sanders had a solid performance but fell short of projecting the persona of a nominee.
Sanders has built an insurgent campaign that draws huge crowds — nearly always bigger than Clinton’s — and boasts far more individual donors than the former secretary of state. But he’s still introducing himself to voters nationally — a task made obvious Tuesday night as he had to explain his identity as a "democratic socialist."
Clinton, meanwhile, already is widely known to the electorate. She defended her record on foreign affairs, including her 2003 vote to authorize the Iraq War — and issue that Obama successfully hammered her on in their primary battle. Clinton used the discussion to align herself with the president, who remains extremely popular among Democratic voters.
Even Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who inserted himself into the debate coverage with live commentary on Twitter, said Wednesday that he felt Clinton had performed well.
Trump’s campaign appeared to have settled on a new target — Sanders — releasing an online ad Wednesday that portrays the Vermont senator as too weak to lead.
AP Writers Jill Colvin, Josh Lederman and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.