Hillary Clinton plans to spend the summer building a case that Republicans are out of touch with the public. But many people aren't convinced she empathizes with them, either, polls suggest, in a potential early warning sign for the Democratic front-runner.
Clinton's approach to defining the Republican field echoes one President Barack Obama used successfully in the 2012 campaign against GOP rival Mitt Romney, a rich man who struggled to make the common touch at times with his policies and persona.
Yet average Americans appear to be split on whether Clinton can relate to them, in the face of scrutiny about her family finances and the Republican argument that she and husband Bill, the former president, play by different rules and have amassed wealth in ways that are inconceivable for most people.
About 47 percent of Americans said Clinton cares about people like them in a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday. That's down from 53 percent in the same poll last summer. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released the same day also found a slight decline in the past year on a similar question, with 49 percent saying Clinton "understands the problems of people like you" and 46 percent saying she doesn't.
The dip in Clinton's ratings on attributes like empathy coincides with a decline in her overall favorability from the time she was Obama's secretary of state. Her current levels mirror how the public viewed her during her failed 2008 White House campaign.
Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime Obama adviser who left the White House this spring, said it's too early for the numbers to cause anxiety in Clinton's Brooklyn campaign headquarters. But he added that "if this trend doesn't reverse itself over the next many months, it should be a cause of concern."
Empathy was a focus of Obama's re-election bid against Romney. The Democratic incumbent relentlessly argued that Romney's policies and personal wealth left him out of touch with most Americans. By Election Day, 81 percent of Americans who said they voted based on whether a candidate cared for people like them backed Obama, according to exit polls.
Clinton campaign officials say they care less about how Clinton is viewed in isolation on the question of empathy and more about how she is compared with specific Republican challengers. While no major polls have done such a head-to-head comparison, a Quinnipiac survey last week found large numbers of Americans undecided on whether many Republican presidential hopefuls — among them Marco Rubio and Scott Walker — care about their needs.
And the ABC News/Washington Post poll had worrying signs for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with 55 percent of Americans saying he doesn't understand the problems of people like them.
Clinton will use a June 13 rally to argue that the GOP field as a whole is out of touch on gay rights, immigration, climate change and more. She has also been highlighting her differences with Republicans on economic issues, financial reform and budget priorities.
While the GOP race is wide-open, with more than a dozen candidates expected to vie for the nomination, the Clinton campaign plans to cast the field as monolithic on policy.
Republicans, however, see an opportunity to turn the question of empathy against Clinton. They've already started trying.
Republican pollster David Winston said the intense early focus on such issues gives Republicans an opening to define the terms of the debate over the direction each party wants to take the country.
"If she doesn't have a product on the shelf — her ideas — what's the point?" Winston asked.
Since the start of the year, Clinton has faced questions about her family foundation's fundraising practices and acceptance of money from foreign governments, as well as her decision to use a private email server at the State Department and destroy personal emails during her tenure in the Obama administration.
Clinton's personal wealth has also created unwanted attention. The Clintons reported last month that they earned more than $30 million in combined speaking fees and book royalties since January 2014.
Clinton campaign officials argue that the individual issues have not affected the way the public views Clinton but the cumulative effect of the scrutiny has.
Her early campaign strategy suggests Clinton and her advisers are aware of the need to present herself as more relatable to Americans. While her failed 2008 White House bid emphasized her toughness and experience, the first months of her second campaign have highlighted her family background and her early work on women's and family issues.
During small round table events in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, Clinton has frequently referenced her roots as the daughter of a father who was a small business owner and a mother who overcame a difficult upbringing and abandonment.
She's also centered policy discussions on pre-kindergarten and daycare options for young children, as well as the plight of those with mental health problems and addictions to heroin and prescription drugs — calling it a "quiet epidemic" striking small towns and rural areas.
"I want to be the president who takes care of people," Clinton told voters in New Hampshire last week. "I consider that my highest and most important responsibility."
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