Far ahead in the Democratic race for president, Hillary Clinton has embarked on a first round of general-election campaigning against Donald Trump featuring a low-key focus on policy and her own experience, in addition to the daily volley of attack and retort that already defines their contest.
Hoping that the election will be waged on wider ground than her economics-centered primary battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Clinton’s campaign is trying to present a contrast between someone who talks big — “a loose cannon,” as Clinton often labels Trump — and someone who listens and gets things done.
The strategy includes wonky appearances to discuss job creation, green energy and combating drug addiction — even in unfriendly states such as West Virginia, where Clinton spoke Monday in an effort to demonstrate, a senior aide said, that she would be a president “for everyone.”
It’s an open question whether Clinton can wrest control of an election conversation in which Trump has proved adept at placing himself at the center — and in which Republican primary voters have spurned the vast experience of Trump’s rivals in favor of his more bombastic rhetoric.
Even before Trump sealed the Republican nomination with unexpected speed this week, Clinton was fortifying “the foundation of a general-election narrative” against him, the senior aide said. Democrats inside and outside her campaign identified some main themes of that narrative: women’s equality, immigration, inclusiveness, national security and her own history.
Although all are familiar issues in a campaign that Clinton began just over a year ago, Sanders’s economic-justice agenda has often overshadowed Clinton’s other priorities in the past 10 months. Returning to these topics now, aides said, represents an effort to remind voters of what her campaign sees as her biggest strengths when compared with Trump: experience, pragmatism and compassion.
Counterattacks are coming, too; several Clinton allies said she cannot wait for the formal end of her primary contest to focus on Trump as relentlessly as he is starting to do with her.
“The primary may well be ongoing, but the nature and the tone of the primary will allow us to communicate more directly and with less noise about who Hillary Clinton is, why she’s in this race and what she’s fighting for a little more strongly,” the senior aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the reasoning behind the candidate’s plans.
Sanders’s tenacity is something Clinton cannot openly criticize, because she also competed until June in her own failed bid in 2008. Instead, she is trying to minimize the perception of weakness in the closing weeks of the primary, when Sanders is likely to extend a winning streak that began Tuesday in Indiana.
Trump is already using Clinton’s endless primary against a previously obscure contender as evidence that she is a flawed candidate. He is also parroting Sanders’s critiques of her.
Clinton said Wednesday that she is “more than happy” to engage Trump, and she waved off what she called his pattern of insults and insubstantial arguments.
“He makes these grand statements and grand accusations.” Clinton said in an interview on CNN. “At some point when you’re running for president, you actually have to put a little meat on the bones. You’ve got to tell people what it is you’re going to do and how he’s going do it.”
Trump is “a classic case of a blustering, bullying guy” who cowed and flummoxed his way past a large slate of rivals, Clinton said.
Sanders, though, is still standing. He has vowed to remain in the race no matter the odds, forcing Clinton into a two-pronged campaign approach for the coming weeks that allies said will pay respect to the primary process while largely ignoring her opponent in the primaries.
Trump’s victory in Indiana on Tuesday, followed by the exit of his final two GOP competitors, made the real estate mogul and political neophyte the presumptive Republican nominee.
Clinton’s loss in the Indiana primary, in contrast, is likely to be followed by losses in West Virginia next week and Kentucky and Oregon later this month.
Clinton’s commanding victories in New York and Pennsylvania effectively placed Sanders out of contention. Although he still has virtually no chance of overtaking Clinton in pledged delegates before the party’s convention in July, his success in May could accentuate her weaknesses at the moment when she claims the nomination — a less-than-ideal way to kick off the general-election contest.
“The Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over,” Sanders said Tuesday night. “They’re wrong.”
Clinton is not likely to get all of the delegates she needs until June, largely on the strength of votes in California and New Jersey. But her campaign concluded that her cushion afforded some breathing room to slow her campaign’s pace somewhat and recalibrate her message.
She has started to change the nature and substance of some of her campaign events to make a case to independents and moderate Republicans. Clinton is also expected to campaign and raise money for other Democrats who could help advance her agenda.
She has quit advertising in primary states this month to conserve money for the general-election fight. She may advertise in California in the final days of that contest, though. She outraised Sanders in April for the first time in months as contributions to Sanders’s insurgent campaign fell off sharply. The fate of a final Clinton-Sanders debate, agreed to when Clinton was neck and neck with Sanders in Iowa, is now in limbo.
She largely skipped her stump speech as she held panel discussions this week on the coal economy, jobs and drug addiction, and she barely mentioned her challenger. On Friday, she got a hero’s welcome at an academy for young black men she has helped support since she was a senator in New York.
The former senator and secretary of state emphasized her experience handling thorny problems, a return to the focus on Clinton as pragmatic problem-solver that defined the early months of the race last year.
It’s the kitchen-table evaluations that Clinton’s allies think favor her, despite the experience of more tested, experienced Republican candidates who fell to the unpredictable juggernaut of Trump’s outsider crusade.
“We can lead with this stuff” now, instead of fitting in her general-election messages around the argument and calendar dictated by the primary, the senior aide said.
Put another way, while parrying Sanders, Clinton was forced to spend more time talking about issues that Sanders emphasized, such as Wall Street reform, and less time talking about items higher on her priority list or comparing herself with Trump.
“She wants to show that she is not content to go forward with the coalition she got,” even though those voters have powered her past Sanders and are probably sufficient to win the general election, the aide said.
“Talking to people who very likely disagree with her . . . may not win these people over,” the aide said. “But she is demonstrating that she wants to be the president for everyone.”
The shift included discussions of jobs, energy, drug addiction and more this week, framed around the hard-luck stories of Appalachia. Sanders is likely to carry West Virginia and Kentucky in contests later this month, and neither state has voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Hillary Clinton also managed a stop in southern Ohio, the part of that general-election swing state least friendly to national Democrats.
In Williamson, W.Va., on Monday night, Clinton had an uncomfortable exchange with an out-of-work coal miner, Bo Copley, over a prediction she had made earlier in the campaign about clean energy eclipsing coal.
“How you can say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend?” Copley asked Clinton. “Because those people out there don’t see you as a friend,” Copley said, referring to protesters who had gathered outside the Williamson Health and Wellness Center.
“What I said was totally out of context from what I meant,” Clinton replied, calling her earlier remarks in a CNN town hall a misstatement. “I do feel a little bit sad and sorry that I gave folks the reason or the excuse to be so upset with me because that is not what I intended at all.”
Trump seized on the exchange, along with some of Sanders’s criticisms, in election-night remarks and interviews this week. He “hasn’t even started” to attack her, Trump said Wednesday. Earlier, he said he will concentrate on “her past.”
Her own campaign zinged Trump on Wednesday with a video using the words of other Republicans against him. Super PACs aligned with Clinton are planning a barrage of attacks based on Trump’s past dealings in business and with women. Both the campaign and her super-PAC supporters will argue that Trump is irresponsible and unsuitable as commander in chief.
Asked how nasty a general-election contest with Trump would be, Clinton said that would be up to Trump.
“He’s the one who’s making that decision,” Clinton said in the CNN interview. “He’s the one who has been running that kind of very negative, aggressive, bullying campaign.”
She said she will continue to run her own campaign on her terms, and she said there is room in her camp for anyone seeking an alternative to Trump.
“The campaign I’m going to run is about what we will do in the future,” she said. “And I invite a lot of Republicans and independents who I’ve been seeing on the campaign trail, who’ve been reaching out to me, I invite them to join with Democrats.”