Time to get serious.

Photographer: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Clinton Wants Democrats to Take Sanders Seriously

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Hillary Clinton has an unusual message to Democratic voters about Bernie Sanders: Take him seriously.

The Clinton campaign, facing a tougher-than-anticipated struggle, believes that an element of her opponent's appeal is that he's the perfect send-a-message vehicle. That's why, starting with last Sunday night's debate on NBC, she's seeking to paint the Vermont socialist as a risky standard-bearer for Democrats in their effort to retain the White House.

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Both candidates are viewed favorably by most Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the first two presidential nominating contests in early February. Clinton's aim is to make people think twice about voting for her opponent, for example by suggesting that a Sanders candidacy would help Republicans win the general election.

It's a tough sell. In the debate, Sanders effectively played to the party's base by repeating his support for universal health care and his charge that Wall Street and the political system are corrupt. He also pointed to polls that showed him running stronger than Clinton against Donald Trump.

Clinton's task is complicated by another challenge: the lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy, especially among younger voters.

Unlike her 2008 primary run, this Clinton campaign has enjoyed a series of successes: copious fundraising, strong debates, credible policy positions, a crack field operation and her skill at turning the tables on Republican congressional inquisitors who tried to show that she mishandled a 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state. She even got help from Sanders in blunting the effect of her bungled handling of private e-mail accounts.

But it's Sanders who's creating enthusiasm. He'll continue to in the early going, the Clinton camp reasons, unless it can somehow make it seem less cool to vote for a straight-talking, anti-establishment 74-year-old maverick.

That's been the purpose of shifting the conversation on health care from the virtues of universal coverage, which Democrats tend to favor, to the risks of reversing the gains of President Barack Obama's more incremental health-care plan, which is also popular. Taxes will be another line of attack.

Both sides agree that Clinton has just a slight edge in Iowa, with caucuses there on Feb. 1. Sanders is ahead in New Hampshire, which has its primary eight days later. A poll this week showing him with a 27-point lead there is dismissed by experts as inflated. Some in the Clinton camp saw a silver lining it, thinking it bolsters their case to take Sanders more seriously as a possible nominee. 

Clinton strategists acknowledge that many young voters, including women, have not rallied to their candidate's side. "Young people like causes," said one top aide. "Bernie is the cause candidate."

The Clinton camp plans to use social media to reach younger audiences, and have secured the services of the strategist Teddy Goff, who handled social media for Obama's 2012 campaign.

Looking ahead, some Clintonites already talk about another possibility. In 1992, Bill Clinton broke with convention and selected as his vice-presidential nominee a politician with a pedigree much like his own: the young Southern moderate Democrat Al Gore. Similarly, Hillary Clinton has suggested that she's open to choosing a woman as her running mate.

If she takes that course in an effort to close the enthusiasm gap and counter Sanders's charge that she's too close to Wall Street, one name occurs: that of the fiery Harvard law professor turned Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

(Corrects erroneous reference to Sanders's polling lead in New Hampshire in ninth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net