Hillary Clinton gained some clarity Tuesday night, but it came with a cost.
Clinton now knows her Republican opponent will be Donald Trump, who became his party's presumptive nominee with a win in Indiana. For weeks now, Clinton’s advisers have viewed voter anxiety about a Trump presidency as one of the best ways to bring Bernie Sanders' supporters to her side, and his grip on the nomination makes those fears all the more potent, they believe.
But first she must confront two problems: she's still having to compete against Sanders, and Trump, liberated from a primary fight, can now train all his fire on her.
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Sanders' victory in the Indiana primary only increased his incentive to stay in the race. This two-front war makes Clinton's job more complicated for the next six weeks or so at least, even though she remains all but certain to be the Democratic nominee in the end.
It doesn't sound like much in a long campaign, but Clinton surely would prefer to be down to just a single opponent. Freed of worrying about Ted Cruz, Trump accused Clinton of abandoning coal miners in his acceptance speech and said she'd be a terrible president, while his adviser Roger Stone already was tweeting about resurfacing allegations from her husband's past.
Clinton, in an interview with CNN that aired Wednesday afternoon, said she's ready to confront the attacks from Trump, who she repeatedly called a "loose cannon."
``If he wants to go back to the playbook of the 1990s, if he wants to follow in the footsteps of those who have tried to knock me down and take me out of the political arena, I'm more than happy to have him do that,'' she said.
Before fully focusing on running against Trump, Clinton's must finish the primary campaign against Sanders and unite the Democratic Party behind her.
Clinton acknowledged the frustrations of Sanders supporters at her being called the Democrat's presumptive nominee. "I'm not calling myself that," she said.
"I have a lot of empathy about this" she said of Sanders' position, recalling that in her 2008 primary contest against Barack Obama she ran until the end. "I won 9 out of the last 12 contests" but "I couldn't close the gap in pledged delegates."
"I want to unify the party," Clinton said. "I'm certainly gong to be reaching out to his supporters."
While a single-minded focus on Trump must wait, she and her advisers are beginning to think about how to use Trump and the divisions he's caused in his party to entice Republican voters to her side in the general election.
She faces the prospect of more losses in primaries ahead, from West Virginia to California, and a challenger who has so far refused to step back. “I got some bad news for her,” Sanders said Tuesday night, all but mocking Clinton's assertion the race is over. He said he believes he can win California in June and then convince the party's superdelegates, the Democratic officials and officeholders not bound by the results of primaries and caucuses, to rally behind him as the stronger candidate to defeat Trump in November. Polls regularly show both Clinton and Sanders beating Trump in a hypothetical matchup, though Sanders usually wins by a larger margin.
Even when Sanders is out of the race, the challenge he presents for Clinton doesn't fully go away. Trump has been attracting working-class white voters who've been left behind by changes in the economy, the same demographic group that's been drawn to Sanders. Trump, with his opposition to free-trade deals that he says have dislocated thousands of workers, boasts that he can beat Clinton in the Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania that have been reliably Democratic in past presidential elections.
Still, the evidence suggests that Clinton's task in uniting Democrats won't be nearly as difficult as Trump's.
Tuesday's exit polls showed the disaffection and division is much greater among Republicans than Democrats. Nearly six in 10 Republican primary voters said the nomination process has divided the party, compared with 22 percent of Democratic primary voters who said so, according to the polls conducted for television networks and the Associated Press.
Almost three-quarters of Democratic voters said they think the primary process has energized the party. Just 40 percent of Republicans held that view.
John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, released a statement about Trump's emergence as his party's presumptive nominee that was aimed directly at the anti-Trump crowd among Republicans.
“Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’s too divisive and lacks the temperament to lead our nation and the free world,” Podesta said. “With so much at stake, Donald Trump is simply too big of a risk.”
Given the emerging wave of vocal discontent inside the Republican Party over Trump, the Clinton campaign is beginning to plot ways to round up another set of potential supporters: voters who are traditionally Republicans but who refuse to back the real estate developer.
The potential targets for the Democrats are Republicans inclined to leave the top of the ticket blank or cast a vote for Clinton in the privacy of the voting booth as well as those so put off by Trump's statements about women, immigrants or foreign policy that they'd consider lending their names to a cross-party movement.
“There is definitely a margin there for the Clinton campaign to manipulate,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who has been leading a California-focused effort to stop Trump from winning the nomination. “That's why it becomes so dangerous to have a nominee who's so toxic.”
Hours before Trump's win in Indiana, Mark Salter, a former top aide to the 2008 Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, said he'd back Clinton over Trump in November if those are his choices. William Oberndorf, a Republican donor and San Francisco investor, told Bloomberg Politics he would be voting for Clinton.
Brian Fallon, Clinton's spokesman, said it's too soon to map out a strategy for a formal outreach to Republicans but “we could have the potential to expect support not just from Democrats and independents but Republicans too,” he said.
Clinton, of course, is a deeply divisive figure in her own right, particularly among Republicans. The numbers of prominent Republicans willing to say they'd vote for her remains small, so it's difficult to predict how much support she could expect to receive.
Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton adviser involved in the Priorities USA Action super-PAC, believes Clinton would have a shot with Republican foreign policy voters, as well as married women. Mitt Romney won married women by 7 points in 2012, while Trump currently has a 12-point deficit with them.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of the Democrats considered a potential Clinton running mate, said Tuesday that will be one of the keys for Clinton in a contest against Trump.
“Educated, suburban white women are going to be turned off en masse, and I think there will be more of that,” he said.
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