Opinion writer
Bernie Sanders said Hillary Clinton is not "qualified" to be president because of the donations she accepts from the fossil fuel industry, while Clinton questioned whether Sanders's ideas are realistic. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

The Democratic primary battle has now taken a turn into a bitter and nasty phase, as the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are now battling over the latter’s new suggestion that Clinton is not “qualified” for the presidency.

Could this portend a really ugly, lasting split among Democrats that could stretch into the convention and beyond, possibly damaging the eventual Dem nominee in advance of November? I doubt it.

Sanders’s latest broadside came after Clinton questioned Sanders’s recent comments about banking reform, which she said raised “a lot of questions” about whether he had done his “homework” on one of his signature issues. A Post article about those Clinton comments (which the Sanders campaign circulated) said: “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president.” Clinton didn’t flatly say that Sanders is unqualified, though.

Regardless, Sanders responded at a rally last night as if she had say that:

“She has been saying lately that she thinks I am quote-unquote not qualified to be president.

“Let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton, I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is through her Super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest money. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.

“I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.”

Clinton is already fundraising off of this, and her high profile backers are already calling on him to tone it down. Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted: “C’mon Bernie. Not qualified? Remember what we all have to do together in November.”

In one sense, Sanders’s monologue is just an extension of the larger argument he has been making for many months. That argument is an indictment of our entire political system. His case is that our political classes, Democrats included, cannot meet the scale of our challenges, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our middle class, our democracy, and our planet, if they continue to remain in thrall to plutocratic money. These challenges are certain not to be met if we don’t fundamentally re-imagine American democracy from the bottom up before it’s too late. The logical extension of this is that no one who continues to participate in the political system, as he’s defined it, is qualified for the job of meeting these challenges.

But Bernie is not just running against our whole political system. He’s also running against a single opponent — Hillary Clinton. And so he’s struggled with a tension at the core of his candidacy: how to berate her for not joining him in breaking with a corrupt system that is fundamentally failing us without seeming to attack her personally as a willing and eager participant in (and enabler of) that corrupt system and, by extension, as inevitably disqualified for the job.

As the First Read crew puts it, if Bernie believes these things disqualify Clinton, he also believes they (or at least the acceptance of oligarchic money) disqualified Obama. But in a way, that’s the whole point: Sanders’s argument is that much of the Obama-era Dem establishment (Obama included) has fallen woefully short of what needs to be accomplished precisely because of their continued participation in this corrupt system.

If Clinton wins the nomination, will this damage her hopes of uniting the party? Probably not. As Amy Walter has pointed out, polling shows that the percentage of Clinton supporters in 2008 who were talking about not backing the nominee was larger than the percentage of Sanders supporters who are now saying the same. That contest was in many ways much more bitter than this one. The Obama team was genuinely fearful that she would not talk down her supporters, potentially crippling his general election hopes. But she came through with a rousing, well-regarded speech that put the party back on the path to unity, and the rest is history.

You can see why some Clinton supporters would conclude that Sanders’s current stance might complicate the task of getting behind her later. But if she does win the nomination, Sanders will likely find a way out of it.

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* TRUMP STAFFS UP FOR CONTESTED CONVENTION: The Post reports that the Donald realizes he’d better seriously beef up his organization to prepare for a much more difficult stretch ahead, including a delegate fight at a contested convention:

Preparing for the convention and protecting Trump’s delegate count have become some of the campaign’s most urgent priorities….Trump will soon give a series of policy-focused speeches and will release documentation of his positions on key issues, staples of typical presidential campaigns that he has previously ignored.

One interesting thing to watch will be whether Trump can actually grow and adapt as a candidate.

* TRUMP’S RIVALS PREPARE TO OUTWORK HIM: CNN reports that senior Republicans in the Stop Trump movement are confident that he is already getting outworked in behind-the-scenes delegate battles and that he’s bound to fall short at the convention:

A top Republican operative said unless Trump acts quickly, delegate raids in places like South Carolina, where the New York billionaire won handily, could come next….”Trump will not win the nomination on the first ballot, and any delegates he does get there will be his high water mark,” said #NeverTrump-PAC strategist Rory Cooper. “As this becomes clearer and clearer, he’s going to lash out, attempt to delegitimize the rules and get people focused on distractions.”

No way! Trump will surely accept defeat at a contested convention with his trademark restraint and grace.

* HILLARY PREPS FOR TOUGH BATTLE IN NEW YORK: The New York Times has a useful look at how Clinton hopes to win her home state by showcasing policies that would bring more federal investments into hard-hit Republican leaning areas upstate:

Mr. Sanders has attracted wide support from white voters, particularly those who said the economy was the most important issue. His advisers say he plans to campaign aggressively in economically battered parts of western New York, where he will criticize Mrs. Clinton’s past support of trade deals and ties to Wall Street….the region has long suffered from the decline in American manufacturing, with jobs disappearing and residents deciding to leave.

Clinton can run up big numbers in New York City, particularly among minorities, but upstate will be the test of whether she has an answer to Sanders’s powerful economic message.

* HILLARY HOLDS BIG LEAD IN MARYLAND: A new Washington Post poll finds Clinton leads Sanders by 55-40 among likely Dem voters in Maryland:

She leads Sanders among black voters 63 percent to 33 percent…and among women 60 percent to 35 percent. Clinton has even larger advantages among moderate and conservative Democrats (63 percent to 30 percent) and voters ages 50 and older (66 percent to 26 percent).

This lead is somewhat narrower than other previous polls have shown, but keep in mind that Sanders needs big wins in states like Maryland (which votes on April 26th) to close the delegate gap.

* WHY BERNIE’S CHALLENGE TO HILLARY HAS SO MUCH BITE: E.J. Dionne explains it well:

Sanders is singularly skilled at transforming Clinton’s practical challenges to his proposals as a wholesale rejection of the idea of being visionary. In doing so, he casts Clinton as a practitioner of the old status-quo politics….she needs to compete far more aggressively with Sanders, both rhetorically and substantively, as a purveyor of big ideas of her own (she is not short on policy proposals) and as the answer to the small-minded politics of this moment.

Absolutely right. While Clinton is understandably arguing that she will build incrementally on Obama’s accomplishments, she also needs to get back to articulating a broad voting and campaign finance reform agenda, to speak to voters’ sense that the system is fundamentally failing.

* DEMS TRAIL IN HIGH PROFILE PENNSYLVANIA SENATE RACE: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that GOP Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania leads both his potential Dem challengers: He beats former Rep. Joe Sestak by 47-39 and beats Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Dem Governor Tom Wolf, by 47-38.

National Dems are spending big money on McGinty in her primary battle with Sestak, viewing her as the best challenge to Toomey. He’s a top target, because he was elected amid the 2010 Tea Party wave and now faces a presidential year electorate in a state that Dems will likely carry by a solid margin.

 * HOW GOP OBSTRUCTION ON COURT COULD HELP DEMS: Bloomberg Politics reports that GOP Senators are showing no signs of budging on Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, but notes this:

The struggle over Garland’s nomination threatens to tie incumbent Republican senators more closely to their party and all of its political ballast. Senate Republican leaders’ obstruction provides a cause around which Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the presidency, can unify her party and rally more ideological supporters of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, should she secure the nomination.

Also, if a Dem wins, he or she can nominate a more liberal justice. So the GOP strategy could end up producing nothing but downsides. But, hey, at least the base is happy!