CONCORD, N.H. — The question at the most recent Democratic presidential debate was this: Which of your many policy proposals would be Job One if you were elected?
Hillary Clinton’s 293-word answer to that straightforward query was anything but.
“I’m for a lot of things,” she told moderator Chuck Todd. “If I’m so fortunate to get the nomination, I will begin to work immediately on putting together an agenda, beginning to talk with members of Congress and others about how we can push forward.”
She proceeded to tick off a familiar litany of Democratic priorities: clean energy, universal health coverage, lower prescription drug costs, paid family leave, early childhood education, assistance for small business, immigration reform, revitalizing manufacturing, infrastructure spending.
Asked the same, her rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders zeroed in on a single priority: unrigging the system. “So long as big money interests control the United States Congress, it is gonna be very hard to do what has to be done for working families,” he said.
That exchange summed up why so many Clinton supporters are publicly and privately urging her to sharpen her message in the face of a growing challenge from Sanders. So far, she has no 21st-century version of the “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra that famously drove her husband Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid.
“When the atmosphere changes from hope and change to rage and revolt, you need to powerfully, succinctly articulate what you want to do,” said former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), a Clinton supporter.
Meanwhile, voters say they have no doubt what Sanders’s candidacy is all about.
“He’s narrow in a way that I like,” said Nick Pangaro, 64, a management consultant. He is leaning toward Sanders but still interested enough in Clinton to attend her appearance at a Boys and Girls Club in Derry, which was her first stop in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses.
“I like the millionaires and billionaires message,” Pangaro said. “I like the fact that he’s talking about what I regard as a true problem in this country, which is the wealth disparity and the fact that so few people are controlling so much wealth.”
After battling her to a virtual tie in Iowa, Sanders is heavily favored to win Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, and has significantly reduced the gap with her in national polls.
Clinton’s decision to take a campaign trail detour to Flint, Mich., on Sunday was welcomed by her allies as a bold move — putting a focus on her values perhaps more than a mountain of policy papers could.
Clinton takes credit for goading Michigan’s Republican governor into accepting federal help to remedy the crisis in the city, where a cost-cutting decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water in the poor, heavily African-American city.
“She cares about this, and she’s meeting people there to try to get more done,” her pollster Joel Benenson said.
In addition, Clinton’s campaign argues that her emphasis on a range of issues is a strength, not a weakness.
Sanders “has a direct message because he’s a single-issue candidate. Our point is that details matter and you need to be able to do all parts of the job,” said her spokesman Brian Fallon.
More importantly, her advisers say, her approach is a reflection of who she is and how she would approach the often-prosaic business of governing.
Most of her positions represent incremental steps on the achievements of President Obama’s two terms, or a promise to protect what he has done.
MSNBC host Mika Brzyznski invited Clinton to give a simple rationale for her candidacy last month. She got a two-and-a-half-minute speech that began with Clinton saying she wanted to build on President Obama’s successes and wandered through biography, policy and partisanship.
“I don’t offer easy answers,” Clinton said on the Jan. 15 broadcast.
She meant that as a none-too-subtle dig at Sanders, but it also summed up the frustration that some of her own supporters are feeling.
Clinton needs something “edgier and interesting and more of a value statement than a plan,” said one adviser who has been consulted by the campaign on policy, and who did not want to be quoted publicly disparaging its message.
On health care, for instance, Sanders proposes a single-payer, government-centered program that would put the private medical insurance system out of business. Such a system is a long-held dream of liberals, but it is hard to see how it could be achieved with Republicans holding control of one and possibly both houses of Congress, as is expected after the 2016 election.
In her stump speech, Clinton takes voters through a long and sometimes discursive list of her plans to fix the Affordable Care Act rather than scrap it.
However, some of Clinton’s proposals also appear politically unrealistic. For instance, she pledges to lower prescription drug prices by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug makers en masse, President Obama also sought that power but conceded it in the negotiations to pass the health care law.
At Thursday’s debate in Durham, Sanders had short, punchy answers for why he’s running and what he wants to do. He called for a “political revolution” and said of big banks, “break them up!”
Clinton rebuked Sanders for an “artful smear” on her character by suggesting she is beholden to big financial interests, but the meat of her argument was example after example of what she called a practical to-do list.
“I won’t make promises I can’t keep,” Clinton said at a campaign stop Friday. “What I will tell you is what I know we can do.”
She is also striving to bring more focus to an area where her fluency is greater than Sanders’: international affairs.
“I know that sometimes foreign policy might seem a little remote,” Clinton said Friday night at a Democratic dinner Manchester. “Russia, Iran, ISIS, these are not issues we can put off to the side. They cannot be an afterthought.”
Abby Phillip in Derry contributed to this report.