In Vegas, Hillary Clinton leaves the table with most of the chips

When it’s not hosting Democratic presidential debates, the Wynn Las Vegas is home to “Denouement” – 75 minutes of aquatics, acrobatics and flashing lights and fire.

Translated from French, denouement is the final part of a narrative in which a plot’s explained and loose threads are sewn together.

None of which occurred in this, the first of six scheduled Democratic debates.

Hillary Clinton entered as the prohibitive favorite; she exited the same, as none of her rivals tagged her. Her electability, or lack thereof, still hangs in the balance.

Hillary Clinton entered as the prohibitive favorite; she exited the same, as none of her rivals tagged her. Her electability, or lack thereof, still hangs in the balance.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the debate’s moderator, ran the show in a non-confrontational manner that kept it from being a Hillary pile-on. Yes, this is the same network that turned the Republicans’ Reagan Library into a Trump hate-fest.

As for Mrs. Clinton’s chief competition in the polls, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: two words keep being used to describe the man (“Democratic socialist”) when but one suffices: unelectable.

Good thing, too: does America really want a President whose idea of fun and romance is a honeymoon in the Soviet Union?

Still, you have a love a candidate with the moxie – or keen lack of self-awareness – to walk into a Vegas casino/hotel and trash-talk “casino capitalists”. Then again, should Sanders tire of the race, an annoyed, grating, Brooklyn-accented Larry David could easily fill the void.

We won’t dwell for long on the three other debaters. A party-molting Lincoln Chafee likened himself to “a block of granite” (“pretty soft granite”, Cooper deadpanned). Martin O’Malley didn’t have a coherent answer to violence in Baltimore, the city he once ruled.  Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb? He’s a reasonable-sounding, moderate fish out-of-water in this field of Amtrak Corridor Progressives.

Yes, there were sparkly moments in this debate. Mrs. Clinton came prepared (talking points well rehearsed) to defend her record and take skilled pokes at Sanders (his Senate votes against gun control). Sanders, who took pride in his lack of debate preparation, simply wasn’t as pointed or polished. Where previous experience pays off: Hillary’s campaign stocked the audience with loud followers, to reinforce her applause lines  – that crowd being a metaphor or a tale of two campaigns: Team Hillary has 22 hired staffers in Nevada to just one for Team Bernie.

Just as Donald Trump has been the center of the GOP debate universe, so too does Hillary Clinton rule her party’s realm. Which creates at least two problems for the party looking to retain the White House:

1.  When Mrs. Clinton utters such lines as “I’ve been very consistent across the course of my life”, which she did in this debate with the qualifier that she reserves the right to change positions as she “absorbs new information” (at least she didn’t invoke “woman’s prerogative”), does it pass the laugh test? Along the same lines: claiming she’s an outsider (because there’s never been a woman president).

Keep in mind: Hillary’s toughest opponent isn’t the four other Democrats on the Wynn’s stage – it’s nearly a quarter-century’s worth of suspicion and disbelief courtesy of such intellectual gymnastics.

As she may learn the hard way a year from now, there’s a world of difference between long-term evolution (see: Ronald Reagan) and Mrs. Clinton’s more overt pandering to a liberal base she lost the last time she sought the presidency.

As the debates go an and the primaries give way to the general election, Hillary will try to project sincerity: discerning voters may see right through it.

2.  If this first debate’s any indicator of five more Democratic gatherings to come, Hillary seriously, seriously, needs a better sparring partner of decided more stature. At present, none of the other Democrats in this debate has the gravitas, the longstanding presence or the media’s buy-in to be taken as a serious threat to her nomination chances.

It’s not her fault; she just happens to be running for president at the same time the Democratic Party is experiencing congressional and historical low-ebbs of historic proportion.

Who could fill the void? Try a big-name Democrat who generates real excitement: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren.

Two-and-a-half hours on a stage with a Vermont socialist and three statistical after-thoughts doesn’t elevate Hillary Clinton’s stature. If anything, it’s a sad testament as to the Democratic Party’s bench-strength.

There’s one other way to look at the Democrats’ big night in Vegas, With whom of these five candidates would you want to go out on the town? The obvious answer: Hillary Clinton. There’s no better Vegas spectacle than a gambler with a big bankroll, a weakness for a making quick buck (cattle futures, anyone?) and no qualms blurring ethical lines (“Huma, go up to the suite and fetch me my loaded dice.”).

And therein lies the Democrats’ problem: Hillary’s the safest bet in this imperfect lot – really, the Democrats’ only bet.

No wonder there are those in her party keeps looking for a new player to deal themselves in.