Hillary Clinton’s proxies ramp up attacks against Sanders
The front-runner’s campaign is more closely guarding its talking points recently, briefing surrogates only by phone.
Stumping for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, a trip partly paid by Clinton’s campaign, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy did more than defend the former secretary of State’s email use — he criticized Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ record on guns.
In Des Moines the same week, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose travel expenses were paid for by the Clinton campaign, knocked Sanders for a lack of outreach to Latinos.
And Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has endorsed Clinton, drew another unflattering contrast between the top Democrats in the race. “I don’t think there’s any comparison between Hillary Clinton’s credentials and qualifications and positions, and Bernie Sanders,” Cuomo told reporters. “I do not see that as a close call.”
Clinton’s campaign, it appears, is unleashing the hounds. While the wounded front-runner is ignoring her competition in the primary race altogether — she still does not utter Sanders’ name on the campaign trail – Brooklyn is paying the travel costs for proxies who are using their appearances in the early-voting states to criticize the surging senator.
Sen. Claire McCaskill first opened the floodgates on Sanders in June, arguing in a “Morning Joe” appearance that her Senate colleague is too liberal to be elected. “I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he’s a socialist,” she said. Last month, she reiterated those attacks on CNN: “I think the question that some of us have is can someone who has said, ‘I’m not a Democrat,’ has chosen the title of socialist, is that person really electable?”
But it’s ramped up since then, particularly in the last month.
In Iowa, Castro raised questions about Sanders’ relationship with an important voting bloc, the Latino community. “Sen. Sanders has not reached out to the Hispanic caucus in Congress, has not reached out to me,” he said. “He has not visited Texas or the Rio Grande Valley…. That’s a bit of a concern.”
At Clinton HQ, campaign officials regularly brief strategists, elected officials and donors before they comment publicly about the race. In recent weeks, the campaign has become more closely guarded with its talking points — when giving guidance on how to respond to speculation about Vice President Joe Biden jumping into the race, for instance, campaign officials told surrogates they would put nothing in writing and would brief them only by phone, multiple sources said.
“It’s an anathema to my own, I don’t understand it,” Malloy in August told New Hampshire voters of Sanders’ record on guns and his vote against the Brady Bill. “[Clinton’s] position among the Democrats is a lot more popular than his position. There’s a difference.”
In Sanders’ inner circle, the attacks are seen as a sign of Clinton’s weakness. “Secretary Clinton’s campaign is getting a little nervous and sending out these surrogates from the establishment to say things about Bernie, but Bernie is determined to keep the campaign focused on the issues,” said Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs.
The elected officials bashing Sanders, however, said Clinton’s campaign gave them no specific instructions to attack.
“I spent last Sunday in Iowa speaking about Hillary Clinton’s strong record of accomplishments and vision for our nation,” Castro told POLITICO. “When asked by voters about other candidates, I answered respectfully and candidly based on my own impression.” Malloy and Cuomo were also responding to a question asked about Sanders.
A spokeswoman for the campaign declined to comment.
But operatives said it added up to a winning strategy for Clinton, coordinated or not.
“When you’re facing a challenger who is surging and has low negatives, the notion that you would try to put a little cloud over his image makes a lot of sense,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “To have Hillary do it would be beyond the pale. But you can’t let Bernie jog around the track by himself picking up support.”
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf added, “When you attack someone in politics it is a sign of fear. Whether coordinated or not, these supporters of Hillary Clinton now attacking Bernie Sanders are obviously worried about Clinton’s future as Sanders popularity and voter interest in him rise.”
Sanders is closing in on Clinton’s lead in Iowa, trailing her by just seven points in the most recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll, 37% to 30%. In New Hampshire,Sanders topped Clinton 44% to 37% among likely Democratic primary voters, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll.
The campaign has begun rolling out high profile endorsements from elected officials like New Hampshire Sen. Jean Shaheen and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an effort to show Democrats closing ranks around Clinton.
Clinton, meanwhile, is trying to send the message that she is staying above the fray. “Other candidates may be out fighting for a particular ideology, but I am fighting for you,” Clinton said at a campaign stop last week in Iowa, drawing only a veiled contrast with Sanders.
On a conference call with reporters Thursday, campaign chairman John Podesta said the time for talking about Sanders would be closer to the first debate in October.That will be “the moment where those issues and the differences between the candidates will certainly be front and center and will be put before Democratic voters in the primary,” he said.
But Democratic consultant Joe Trippi said the current lines of attack on Sanders from surrogates are more likely due to a lack of organization from the campaign, rather than an orchestrated strategy.
“You’re not seeing a consistent hit,” he said. “It’s not like they’re all talking from the same playbook. You get asked 50 times about Bernie Sanders. You’re going to answer the question sooner or later. It’s not like surrogates have the same discipline as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton has.”