Opinion writer

The relatively staid and civil Democratic presidential primary may be about to take a hard turn into much more contentious territory: Bernie Sanders is now declaring that he supports ongoing investigations into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail arrangement. And he’s claiming her reversals on issues speak to her “character.”

At the recent Democratic debate, Sanders’ comments about Clinton’s e-mails were widely seen as an effort to absolve her of the story: he declared to great applause that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sanders disputed the idea that he had let her off the hook:

Mr. Sanders rejected that assessment on Wednesday. If her email practices foiled public-records requests or compromised classified information, those are “valid questions,” Mr. Sanders said….

Mr. Sanders didn’t say he regretted his debate remarks. “You get 12 seconds to say these things,” he said of the debate setting. “There’s an investigation going on right now. I did not say, ‘End the investigation.’ That’s silly.…Let the investigation proceed unimpeded.”

Sanders appears to be giving his blessing to the ongoing FBI probe into the question of whether Clinton aides and/or State Department employees mishandled sensitive information by sending it to her and exposing it on her unsecured server. (Sanders should also be asked whether he feels the same way about the turn the House GOP probe into the Benghazi attacks has taken, though I strongly suspect he’d say No.)

If Sanders is talking about the FBI probe, then he is absolutely right: The question of whether her e-mail set up was compromising is of course a legitimate one that should be investigated. (Law enforcement officials have said she is not a target of the investigation.) Even Clinton herself has allowed that these questions are legitimate.

Nor is this really all that dramatic a reversal of Sanders’ comments at the debate. The upshot of his remarks then was that the American people would rather hear about the issues than about Clinton’s e-mails. Now he’s claiming the e-mail arrangement raises legitimate questions that should be answered by a legitimate inquiry. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. They can both be true.

But Sanders’ comments do signal the possibility that he may begin to raise the e-mail issue in a more systematic way. The Sanders campaign has made a big show of promising not to go “negative” in this campaign. Yet in the Wall Street Journal interview, Sanders stated that Clinton’s inconsistency on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other issues “does speak to the character of a person.” Raising questions about Clinton’s character is going negative. To be clear, that’s also legitimate: asking whether Clinton’s changes in position should make us question her commitment to her current stances is fair game. But let’s not pretend raising questions about her character isn’t going negative.

Similarly, the thing to watch for now is whether Sanders begins to stray into suggesting the e-mail story sows doubts about Clinton’s honesty or integrity. That hasn’t happened yet, but as the voting gets closer, it just might.

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UPDATE: Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin responds to Sanders’ comments about the emails and about her character:

“This has and will remain a campaign about issues for Hillary Clinton, and that’s what she’ll continue to talk about on the trail. It’s disappointing Senator Sanders and his campaign strategists have chosen to change direction and engage in the type of personal attacks that they previously said he wouldn’t do.”

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* MEDIA SCRUTINY OF MARCO RUBIO INTENSIFIES: The New York Times devotes a stand-alone piece to Marco Rubio’s use of Republican Party credit cards for personal expenses as a young state Representative in Florida. The larger context:

The risk for Mr. Rubio, who has acknowledged “a lack of bookkeeping skills,” is that the credit card may become a symbol of a larger pattern of financial challenges in his recent past, including a brush with foreclosure on a second home in 2010 over late mortgage payments and the recent liquidation of a retirement account that prompted a large tax penalty.

Rubio is pledging to soon release records that will help clear the matter up. For now, he’s deflecting by claiming: “I obviously don’t come from a wealthy family,” which again underscores the centrality of his humble upbringings to his campaign.

* EVEN REPUBLICANS SUPPORT BACKGROUND CHECKS: The new Quinnipiac Poll finds overwhelming support for requiring background checks on all gun purchases: 93 percent of Americans back this, including 88 percent of Republicans.

Meanwhile, Americans support “stricter gun laws” by 52-45. But 77 percent of Republicans oppose it. Perhaps that means that even Republicans don’t think a sensible reform like background checks constitutes “stricter gun laws”?

* AMERICANS WANT BOOTS ON GROUND AGAINST ISIS: Also from the new Quinnipiac poll: Americans support sending in ground troops to fight ISIS by 54-38. Republicans support it by 68-23. Only Democrats oppose it, by 51-41, but even among Democrats, the support is surprisingly high.

 * HERE IT IS: THE FULL TEXT OF THE TPP!!! It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is now online! Now that we’ve got specifics, this will supply a fresh batch of targets for opponents, and it remains to be seen whether it can get through Congress.

One thing worth watching: Whether Donald Trump, a critic of the deal, steps up the attacks on rivals like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for their support of it.

* WHAT TRUMP SUPPORTERS WANT: Speaking of the above, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein talks to New Hampshire voters who like Donald Trump and finds they see him as a businessman who can get stuff done without the encumbrances that restrain normal politicians. Note this Trump supporter’s assessment:

“I want somebody strong and powerful who can deal with China, who can deal with Mexico, that’s what I want.”

One other voter says Trump “puts Americans first.” Cue up the Trump demagoguing of the TPP…

* ELECTIONS SHOW RED-BLUE AMERICA DIVIDE: E.J. Dionne takes a close look at Tuesday’s election results and notes that Democrats had some victories in Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections and in an Ohio referendum to reform redistricting. But the Kentucky loss still looms large. Conclusion:

The one large lesson from Tuesday is that the red parts of the country are getting even redder while the blue and some of the purple parts get bluer. We are still two Americas.

One thing that will be interesting to see is whether analysts find that the results confirm an increased correlation between down-ballot and presidential voting.

* WILL GOP EVER EVOLVE ON CLIMATE CHANGE? I have a new feature in the New Republic that looks at the question of whether the Republican Party will ever get serious about acknowledging climate science to the degree that Republicans might be willing to participate in meaningful solutions.

The short version: Republicans can do a great deal of damage to national and international efforts to address the problem. The good news: They might fail to do that, or, alternatively…well, if you want to know more, check out the piece here.