WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clash on the national stage Thursday for the first time since the ex-secretary of state’s New Hampshire drubbing, with Clinton seeking to tailor her message to counter the Sanders surge.
With Clinton nursing her wounds and her national lead eroding, Sanders seeks to build on his stunning win by reaching out to minority groups as the White House nomination battle heads to states with more diverse electorates.
Clinton will aim to blunt her rival’s momentum and reclaim the initiative in the Democratic primary race — beginning with Thursday night’s high-stakes primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
She squeaked out a razor-thin, 0.3-percentage point win in last week’s Iowa caucus, only to suffer a harsh 22-point blowout in this week’s New Hampshire primary against an independent senator who describes himself as a democratic socialist.
The race now turns to Nevada and then South Carolina — friendlier, more diverse territory for Clinton, who seeks to profit from the coalition of black and Latino voters who helped propel Barack Obama into the White House in 2008.
But she must try to cut Sanders down to size without alienating the young voters who are flocking to his “political revolution” message, or risk a devastating campaign implosion.
Peeling African-Americans and Hispanics away from Clinton will be crucial for Sanders, but doing so is an uphill climb in particular because Clinton, who aims to become the first woman commander in chief, remains popular with minority voters.
The Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, including a number of black lawmakers such as rising star House Democrat Terri Sewell, offered a resounding endorsement of Clinton on Thursday.
It described her as not only the singular candidate with the experience and temperament to be president, but someone who has advocated for minority rights for decades.
“We must have a president that understands the racial divide, not someone who just acquired the knowledge recently but someone … who has lived it and worked through it down through the years,” CBC chairman G.K. Butterfield told a press conference.
“We need a president who doesn’t simply campaign and just promise wonderful things, but things that are politically impossible to achieve,” he said.
“She’s been our partner long-term,” added House Democrat and caucus PAC board chairman Gregory Meeks.
Sanders acknowledged his challenge in Nevada and South Carolina in a Washington Post interview.
“If the elections were held today in both those states, we would lose,” he said Wednesday.
“But I think we have momentum, I think we have a shot to win, and if we don’t win, we’ll do a lot better than people think we will.”
Sanders, taking a post-New Hampshire victory lap on late-night talk shows, returned to his bread-and-butter political message, that Americans are unhappy with the status quo and want changes that will end income inequality and prevent billionaire donors from buying U.S. politics.
“I think what people are saying is enough is enough. We need fundamental changes in our political system and our economic system,” Sanders told CBS’s “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert.
Clinton has sought to define Sanders as an unrealistic ideologue, and she received a shot in the arm on that front from the Washington Post, whose Thursday editorial unfavorably linked Sanders with billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner.
Both men, it said, are political outsiders offering “simple-sounding solutions,” such as Sanders’s call for higher taxes in order to offer free college and universal health care.
“We think both men are dangerously if seductively wrong in their facile diagnoses and prescriptions,” the paper said.
Clinton meanwhile has announced that three mothers of African-Americans killed in gun violence, including Dontre Hamilton, who was shot dead by police in Milwaukee in late 2014, will join her on the campaign trail in coming weeks.