Former President Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife in New Hampshire Wednesday, bluntly admitted how much more difficult than expected Hillary Clinton's race for the Democratic presidential nomination has become.
“This has turned into an interesting election,” the candidate's husband told a rally in Salem. “We’re fighting it out in Iowa. We’ve got a little lead that I think is solidifying and maybe growing a little bit. We’re on a home-field disadvantage here."
With less than two weeks before the first ballots of the election are cast in Iowa, Hillary Clinton, who promised that she would “work for every vote,” is having to do just that. News of endorsements withheld and renewed questions about her e-mail practices as secretary of state continued the drip-drip-drip of small setbacks that have prevented her from gaining the traction she needs to stride confidently into the first contests. Instead, she and her team seem to be trying to navigate a slippery floor.
Most of all, the Clinton campaign itself—through its stepped-up activity against her chief rival, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont—suggested that the once-prohibitive Democratic front-runner sees herself in a competitive battle with a septuagenarian self-described socialist.
“Hillary does not consider Planned Parenthood a member of the establishment and I don't see how anybody else could,” her husband told an audience in Concord. He was responding to Sanders' characterization a day earlier of the women's reproductive rights group that Republicans in Congress have sought to defund and that endorsed Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
The nation needs “not anger but answers,” the former president went on to say, taking on Sanders' efforts to portray Clinton as an insider and himself as an agent of change. “I think you should vote for her because she is the best change-maker I've ever met,” he said of his wife.
“The real issue is: Who can win the election? Who’s prepared the do the job? Who can make real change?” the former president added.
Until now, Bill Clinton has more often cast his wife as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and focused on Republicans as the enemy, while ignoring or downplaying Sanders.
But Hillary Clinton took a more aggressive approach than in the past to Sanders in Sunday's primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina. One day after her foreign policy surrogates questioned Sanders' readiness, Clinton told NPR that Sanders' comments about the Middle East are cause for “concern,” questioning his understanding of the shifting alliances in the Middle East, and emphasizing her own credentials and links to the current occupant of the White House.
“President Obama, when he was elected, immediately turned to me. He trusted my experience and my judgment,” Clinton said.
Meanwhile her campaign released new ads in Iowa and New Hampshire emphasizing her experience.
But the formidable resume that her husband alluded to, and that Clinton and her supporters hoped would make her the prohibitive favorite to become the nation's first female president, may be more a handicap than an asset in a year when voters in both parties are exasperated with the nation's financial and political establishment. In a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll taken earlier this month, 44 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers described themselves as anti-Wall Street, 43 percent described themselves as socialist, and 22 percent described themselves as politically “independent,” rather than Democrat.
In an e-mail to supporters on Wednesday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook wrote that a higher proportion of Sanders' supporters appear to be funding his campaign than hers “and that worries me.”
On the stump Wednesday night in Burlington, Iowa, the candidate herself argued that she and Sanders have substantial areas of agreement but favor different approaches. “Let’s not fight about health care. Let’s keep improving it. We can get to universal coverage,” she said. When it comes to Wall Street, she added, the Democratic field is “in a vigorous agreement but we’re not exactly seeing eye to eye.”
But, like her husband, Clinton also called out Sanders' comments on Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, saying she was “somewhat confused” by his comments and could only wish that women's rights and gay rights were settled issues. “We have to keep working to make sure that people are not taken advantage of, are not stripped of their rights,” she said.
This all comes as polls show Clinton facing a closer-than-expected race against Sanders on Feb. 1 in Iowa and the prospect of defeat to Sanders on Feb. 9 in New Hampshire, which shares a border with Sanders' home state. Meanwhile, some voices Clinton would have liked in her corner are withholding a verdict.
Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer told Reuters on Wednesday he isn't yet ready to endorse Clinton and didn't rule out supporting Sanders, even though Steyer last May held a $2,700-a-person fundraiser for Clinton.
Nevada's Culinary Union said it will not endorse ahead of the state's Feb. 20 caucus. The 57,000-member union, an affiliate of the hotel worker union UNITE HERE, is Nevada's largest and most politically powerful.
Amid a dispute over caucus sites days before the 2008 contest in Nevada, UNITE HERE, which had endorsed Obama, ran an radio ad declaring “Hillary Clinton does not respect our people.” But the Culinary's political director told Bloomberg in August that members are “ready to learn where Senator Clinton is at today, and feel her out, without holding any grudges about what happened in 2008.”
In September, Clinton joined Sanders and O'Malley in calling for a repeal of Obamacare's so-called “Cadillac tax,” levied on the kind of generous health benefits unions negotiate. The Culinary had identified eliminating the tax in August as its top issue in the race.
And Clinton may face a new headache in the controversy over her use of private e-mail servers while she was secretary of state, after reports this week that intelligence officials identified information that was more than top secret. In the interview with NPR, she dismissed the findings as a “continuation of an interagency dispute” over when to classify information and suggested she's the victim of a politically motivated leak. “I never sent or received any material marked classified,” she said.
“I know we're in a hard fight here and I know we're running against one of your neighbors,” Bill Clinton told the crowd in Concord. “This state has been so good to me and Hillary,” he said, an indirect reference to his close second-place finish there in 1992 that earned him the nickname “The Comeback Kid” and to her 2008 primary win in New Hampshire over Barack Obama. He and Hillary both had learned “a great deal” about what's going on in America from what people told them in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton said.
He refrained from using Sanders' name, repeatedly referring instead to his wife's opponent. He hinted rather than hammered at the idea that Republicans would rather run against Sanders than Clinton. “They're good at this,” he said of Republicans. “They don't want to run against her. They have sent us a clear signal.” He also said, as if it were an acknowledged fact, that his wife is “the only person” from either party ready for the job, before asking, “So what's going on out there?” And he laid out an analysis of Americans' fears across various demographic groups about everything from wages to terrorism.
Republicans, he said, in no particular order blame “Muslims, Mexicans, President Obama” for what's wrong with the country. “Or they blame Hillary.” Meanwhile, “Hillary's opponent says this was all caused by Wall Street and billionaires,” which are “a better object of our hatred and more accurate” but also, he indicated, not entirely on point. Hillary, he said, saw the nation's difficulties since the 2008 economic collapse in large part as failures of government. He said she is committed to reforms that can win enough bipartisan support to be implemented. In contrast, he said, Sanders' newly unveiled plan for Medicare for all is “a recipe for gridlock” and “we cannot afford to waste a year or two.”
—With assistance from Sahil Kapur in Concord, New Hamphire, and Josh Eidelson in Washington.