Hillary Clinton and her allies are shifting their attention to a likely general-election contest against Donald Trump that they expect to be strongly negative — and for which they are planning an intensive effort to draw out minority voters who feel demonized by the billionaire real estate mogul.
Clinton is still waging a hard-fought nomination battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — including 11 contests on Tuesday — and some Democrats supporting her are wary of looking too far over the horizon. But increasingly sure that Trump will win the Republican nomination, Clinton appears this week to be running a two-pronged campaign against both Sanders and an eventual Republican opponent who sounds a lot like Trump.
On Monday, for instance, Clinton lingered on what she called “scapegoating” and “finger-pointing” in the Republican race — clearly signaling her willingness to criticize Trump.
“The mean-spiritedness, the hateful rhetoric, the insults — that’s not who we are,” Clinton said in Springfield, Mass., a day ahead of the Super Tuesday voting that is expected to place her firmly in the lead for the Democratic nomination. “It really undermines our fabric as a nation.”
A Clinton-vs.-Trump general election would put the former secretary of state and first lady head to head with an unconventional candidate who has seized on a current of nationalist and anti-immigrant discontent. Trump has been talking about the general-election matchup for a while, predicting that he will defeat Clinton in unexpected places, including New York and such Rust Belt states as Michigan that Republicans haven’t won since the 1980s.
“People are going to be surprised,” he said Monday during a rally in Radford, Va., where he also took a few swings at Clinton.
“Honestly, she should not be allowed to run,” he said. But “Bernie Sanders is over, he took a big beating. Took a big beating.”
What became clear Monday is that Clinton and her surrogates are also preparing for a showdown with Trump.
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), a Clinton supporter mentioned regularly as a potential vice presidential pick, came out swinging at an appearance in the Virginia suburbs of Washington on Monday, criticizing Trump for saying during a debate this month that the U.S. military is a “disaster.”
“That’s a quote. From a guy who wants to be commander in chief,” Kaine said. “I don’t want somebody who is the commander in chief to talk that way about 1.6 million young men and women who volunteer in a time of war to serve their country. I want a commander in chief who respects the military and their families and who will speak about them with gratitude, not contempt.”
Clinton’s campaign declined to speak on the record about a general-election contest against Trump, saying the focus is on the primaries. But a senior campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy did note that Clinton was the first candidate — Democratic or Republican — to criticize Trump directly over his comments about Mexican immigrants and, later, Syrian refugees.
Several Clinton supporters said that if Trump is the GOP nominee, those comments are likely to be the focus of a major line of attack with the goal of boosting turnout among Latinos and other immigrant and minority voters who are turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. They said Trump is the Republicans’ own worst enemy in a general election, even as he holds mass appeal among white working- and middle-class voters likely to determine the party’s nomination.
And Clinton’s allies will have the resources to wage those attacks on the airwaves. At the beginning of February, Priorities USA Action, the largest super PAC supporting her, had nearly $45 million in its war chest and had spent a relatively modest amount — about $4 million — boosting Clinton in the primaries.
The super PAC plans to raise at least $200 million in the 2016 cycle, the lion’s share of it intended for the general election.
“It became clear by last summer that Donald Trump wasn’t going anywhere and this was a real campaign,” said Priorities USA spokesman Justin Barasky. “Our main focus has always been the general election.”
“Generally, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure she wins,” he added.
The crux of Clinton’s strategy, several allies said, would be to compare Trump’s immigration program to hers: a wall and a hard line on deportation vs. a path to citizenship and an emphasis on keeping families together. This construct has already been used by Clinton, as well as by surrogates in Nevada and Colorado, and Clinton allies envision it as a rallying cry for Hispanic support in the general election.
Clinton’s recent pitch to “break down every barrier,” for instance, is an implicit contrast to Trump’s promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to deport all 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. And her occasional appeal to bring more “love and kindness” into the political sphere appears to have Trump in mind.
“We don’t need to make America great,” Clinton said Saturday, playing on Trump’s signature promise after her big victory in South Carolina’s primary. “America has never stopped being great. We do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers.”
Her campaign also plans to hold one or more huge rallies with Hispanic supporters, including elected leaders, entertainers and writers, said a Clinton donor familiar with her Hispanic outreach efforts. One such event could come before the Democratic convention in July and another after, the supporter said.
Already, Clinton has targeted Trump directly on Twitter and on the stump, usually over immigration and the threat to U.S. influence abroad from what she has called “loose talk.”
On Sunday, Clinton retweeted Sanders on the subject of Trump: “America’s first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK,” the message said. That was a reference to Trump’s refusal to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Trump claimed last year that Mexico exports “killers and rapists” to the United States, producing one of Clinton’s first and most pointed denunciations of him.
Latino voters are baffled by the rhetoric, and while few believe Trump could actually deport so many people or build the wall he promises, many are worried and offended, said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a Clinton supporter. Trump’s broadsides come in an election year when some Republican leaders had hoped to make a values-based appeal to Hispanic voters and improve the party’s image with the nation’s fastest-growing demographic.
A recent Washington Post-
Univision poll showed that 74 percent of Hispanic voters say Trump’s views on immigration are offensive. The poll found that 82 percent of Hispanic voters want the next president to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — and that 43 percent would not vote for a candidate who opposes such a policy.
Becerra predicts that a wave of new and motivated Hispanic voters will oppose Trump. “Donald Trump is building his own wall to keep Latinos from voting for him. It may be the only wall he builds,” he said.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a Clinton supporter, told MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell on Monday that Trump has turned the race “into a farce” and is energizing Hispanic voters to oppose him.
It has never been easier, Castro said, for him to persuade friends and associates to vote.
“When one candidate is saying you’re a murderer and a rapist, it’s kind of a no-brainer” that voters will prefer the alternative, Becerra joked.
Although Trump boasted Monday that he had done well among Hispanic voters in Nevada’s Republican caucuses and would continue to do well with that large and growing voter group, Democrats supporting Clinton say they are confident he could attract no more than about one in four Latino voters nationally.
At his rally in Radford, Trump said he believes there is more enthusiasm among Republican voters than among Democrats, pointing to voting totals in the South Carolina primary. Although Clinton’s victory there showed her enduring strength among black voters, lower turnout may bode ill for Clinton in the long haul, Trump suggested.
“I drew — the Republicans drew — so much more, so many more votes. Like double. And they went down because there’s no enthusiasm for Hillary. None,” Trump said. “We went way up because, whether people like me or not, there is enthusiasm on the Republican side. That I can tell you. There is enthusiasm. Big, big, big enthusiasm.”
Trump has perfectly captured the mood of the Republican base, said pollster Stanley Greenberg, who worked for former president Bill Clinton. Greenberg released findings Monday from a poll of likely GOP voters showing that immigration and cultural differences are main drivers for white, working-class Republicans.
“Why is it Donald Trump appears to be headed to be the Republican nominee? He understands the Republican electorate better than anyone else” this cycle, Greenberg told reporters.
But that understanding comes at the potential cost of alienating more than Hispanic voters in the general election, he said. Women, Catholics and moderate Republicans generally expressed worry about a Trump candidacy.
Greenberg’s survey of 800 likely Republican voters found that 20 percent of Republicans have not decided whether they would back Trump or Clinton in a head-to-head contest.
Meanwhile, although Clinton remains focused on the Democratic nomination, her campaign hopes that her outreach to Latinos in upcoming primary states will lay the groundwork for boosting turnout in the general election. She is favored Tuesday in Texas, where Hispanics are a sizable portion of the electorate.
In addition, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced its support for Clinton on Monday.
Clinton is also looking past Super Tuesday to Florida, an important swing state and the next one on the primary calendar with a large and influential Hispanic population. Clinton is holding her Super Tuesday evening rally in Miami, where Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also are scheduled to be that day. All are focused on the state’s March 15 primary.
Jose DelReal in Radford, Va., and Scott Clement contributed to this report.