Hillary Clinton shifts up a gear in presidential race

Against falling poll numbers, the Democratic frontrunner has come out swinging at rivals

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary  Clinton  appears to be behaving like she might have something to lose in her race to win the Democratic nomination. Photograph: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears to be behaving like she might have something to lose in her race to win the Democratic nomination. Photograph: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

 

Hillary Clinton is approaching her presidential campaign with a new abandon. She is showing a more human side by lampooning Republicans on comedy TV and talk shows like Saturday Night Live and performing Donald Trump impersonations on demand at campaign events.

The former secretary of state, in her second campaign for the White House, is also confronting hot-button issues with a vigour not seen in her campaign so far. She appears to be behaving like she might have something to lose in her race to win the Democratic nomination.

The surge by self-professed socialist senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an outsider in Democratic circles initially thought to have an outside chance, and the potential entry of vice president Joe Biden, a gaffe-prone but popular figure, has made her shift the campaign up a few gears. The step-up comes ahead of the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas next Tuesday.

In some of the most aggressive moves of her campaign, Camp Clinton has seized on comments by Republican Kevin McCarthy, who is favourite to succeed John Boehner as the next speaker of the House of Representatives, about a congressional committee set up to investigate the attacks on the US outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

In an interview with Fox News, he indicated something that many Democrats have long believed – that the committee is politically motivated. Clinton’s poll numbers, he said, had been falling because Republicans had set up this special committee.

‘Sharpening her message’

“She has done a good job in recent days sharpening her message,” said Democratic strategist Paul Quinn. “She is throwing it back in their faces. Her public appearances have been quite impressive.”

In another sign of renewed confidence, Clinton’s campaign team sent copies of her autobiography of her tenure at the State Department, Hard Choices, to each of the Republican presidential candidates after they queried her record as secretary of state in their last debate.

Clinton has also deployed husband Bill in her campaign for the first time. In contrast to his wife who scores poorly in the polls on likeability and trustworthiness, the 43rd president is still very popular with voters. The former first lady has every reason to intensify her efforts. Sanders has pulled back her lead in Iowa, the first state to pick presidential candidates in next February’s caucuses, and overtaken her in New Hampshire, the second-voting state in next year’s election cycle.

His popular attacks on the billionaire class and corporate interests in politics has won him many new friends. His rally-rousing talk of higher taxes on the wealthy, increases to the minimum wage, tuition-free college education and an expansion of healthcare programmes has excited progressives who don’t believe Clinton’s liberal credentials.

Supporters have followed with their money. Sanders almost matched Clinton’s fundraising haul of $28 million (€25 million) in the last three months, bagging $26 million mostly in small contributions offered at a rate that bettered Obama’s broad fundraising prowess. The latest US gun massacre – the killing of nine people by a troubled 26-year-old gun enthusiast in an Oregon college last week – has turned gun control into the current lightning-rod topic of the campaign and provided Clinton with a possible stick to beat Sanders with.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Clinton proposed tough measures – some legislative, some administrative – such as a tightening of background checks on online gun sales and sales at gun shows.

School shooting

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Sanders has spoken out after Oregon, saying he wanted a “comprehensive approach” to prevent mass shootings. Past votes, however, could hurt his standing among liberals. In the 1990s, as a member of the House, he voted against the Brady Bill requiring background checks. As a senator he voted for an act signed into law in 2005 by President George W Bush that blocked victims of gun violence from suing firearm manufacturers – an act, which Clinton has said since Oregon, she wants to overturn.

A “Super Pac” political group supporting another Democratic rival, the Irish American former mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley, ran an advert this summer questioning Sanders’s standing on guns.

“Bernie Sanders is no progressive when it comes to guns,” said the ad. O’Malley went further on Monday, attacking his Democratic rival by saying Sanders was out of line with the party’s position on guns.

“I think his opinions and his position on this are different than the mainstream of the Democratic Party anyway,” O’Malley said on a New Hampshire radio station.

O’Malley, who is barely figuring in the polls, has gone furthest of all the Democratic candidates on gun control proposals post-Oregon. Sanders comes from the rural state of Vermont where gun ownership is common and hunting is popular. New gun controls also don’t play well in neighbouring New Hampshire where the state’s libertarian motto is “Live Free or Die”. This might explain why Sanders has yet to roll out his gun control policies. It’s a delicate subject for him and one Clinton may attempt to capitalise upon.

“The reality is she feels Sanders is closing in on her and at some point Hillary’s gloves are going to come off,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who envisages anti-Sanders ads from Clinton’s people from the start of next year, a month before the Iowa caucuses. At the same time as Sanders’s lift-off in the polls, Clinton’s confused handling of the controversy around her use of a private email server as secretary of state has led Democrats to look for electable alternatives.

Most commentators see Sanders as having only a slim shot at winning the Democratic nomination and only if Clinton slips up again or fails to make hay on incidents such as McCarthy’s Benghazi misstep.

This has brought Biden into contention. The vice president, still grieving over the loss of his son Beau to cancer earlier this year, is mulling whether he and his family have the stomach for a third presidential bid.

An announcement

If he does run, Clinton, as a fellow Obama alumnus, would likely lose support to the more likeable vice president, while some anti-Clinton supporters in the Sanders camp might also gravitate towards Biden.

While many pollsters wouldn’t dare underestimate the electoral potential of a sitting vice president, Biden is seen as having left it too late to launch an effective campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is too close to Clinton on many policies to challenge his former colleague seriously.

Clinton could conceivably afford to lose one of those two early-voting states and still win the nomination. Losing both would send a shock wave through the party. Sanders’s polling numbers certainly raise doubts about Clinton and questions about Biden as a substitute.

“Every day that goes by is more evidence that he won’t run,” said Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“He is more of a ‘in case of emergency’ candidate. If Clinton stumbles in Iowa and New Hampshire, that would relieve him of the burden of having to create an operation out of thin air – if there was a complete Clinton collapse in the winter, Democrats would turn to him.”

The recently resurgent Clinton is a creature of a campaign moving closer to critical primaries and almost a year out from the presidential ballot. It is also reminiscent of the reinvigorated candidate who eight years ago came back bloodied from a third-place finish in Iowa to beat Obama in New Hampshire, a contender who is at her best when faced with intense competition.

“She is remarkably resilient,” said Bannon. “Every time she has taken a hit, she found a way to resurrect herself. She is very aggressive recently. Her people are pulling out all the stops to get things right.”