Democrats grapple with Trump effect as primary draws near

AP, AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Months of intense focus on the Republican presidential race have prompted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to turn her attention to her would-be challengers in the general election, leaving her chief Democratic rival gasping for airtime.

Now, after spending weeks largely out of the spotlight nationally, Clinton plans to intensify her campaign schedule from an almost incumbent-style public effort to a more aggressive approach.

With just six weeks left before the first round of primary voting, Clinton plans a series of multiday swings through Iowa starting in January, interspersing trips there with stops in New Hampshire and other early primary states. Her campaign will also unveil what Clinton has called her “not-so-secret weapon,” sending her husband, former President Bill Clinton, out to hit the stump after months of behind-the-scenes activity.

And in a sign of the escalating battle between the two party front-runners, her campaign was forced to engage with Republican Donald Trump on Tuesday after he called Clinton’s bathroom break during the recent debate “disgusting” and said she was “schlonged” in the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination, using a vulgar Yiddish term to describe her loss to now-President Barack Obama. On Twitter Tuesday, Trump denied the word was vulgar and said it simply means “beaten badly.”

In an interview Tuesday with The Des Moines Register, Clinton said: “I don’t know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign.”

Trump’s campaign trail bombast appears to have done him little if any harm in the polls. A new national CNN/ORC poll of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters has Trump leading with 39 percent support, more than twice that of his nearest competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz, at 18 percent, a 2-point gain since the last poll in November.

Sen. Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have both slipped slightly and sit at 10 percent, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came in fifth at 5 percent. None of the other eight Republican candidates is above 4 percent.

While many of Trump’s rivals are devoting many hours to shaking hands with voters, Trump is eschewing such traditional “retail politics” in favor of large, high-profile rallies and television appearances.

“Trump is an anomaly because of the overwhelming frustration voters have of Washington,” said Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican strategist who worked previously for Rick Perry’s presidential bid. “He simply is tapping into that and voters are overlooking the heavy retail component that Trump has not been able to engage in — partly because of his strong popularity and large crowds.”

Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic nomination is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Though Clinton leads Sanders in national polls by more than 20 points, the numbers are much tighter in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sanders has an edge. The Sanders campaign believes victories in those two states would undercut Clinton’s strength and send him into the next contests — in Southern and Western states where he’s polling lower— with a boost of momentum.

“You will take that momentum coming out of the states, people will come to you in very large numbers, in very short order, and you will build that into victory,” Sanders campaign adviser Tad Devine told reporters in New Hampshire on Saturday. “That has been our plan from day one.”

But Sanders struggled to find his footing as the race has shifted away from his core economic message to one of national security after attacks by extremist elements in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Clinton aides say they are taking nothing for granted in the upcoming contests. “We are totally focused on this primary right now,” said campaign manager Robby Mook.

In recent weeks, however, Clinton has spent far more time attacking Trump and her would-be Republican rivals than Sanders, demonstrating a growing confidence in her primary standing and increased focus on the general election.

Democratic leaders believe that reminding their voters of whom they may be up against in November helps motivate their party in a primary that hasn’t generated the excitement of the Republican field.

“I want him to talk every single day,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said of Trump. “It’s going to help propel our nominee to the White House.”