Super Tuesday is barely over, but Hillary Clinton and her team are already focused on their next target: Donald Trump. After Clinton’s recent wins and Trump’s continued domination of the Republican field, Clinton supporters, strategists and experts seem convinced the former secretary of state will be facing the Donald come November — and they say she must take him seriously.
Clinton won big on Super Tuesday, putting her far enough ahead of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders that many once again are speaking of her inevitable nomination. But Trump similarly routed his opponents in most Tuesday contests, as he has been doing throughout the primary season. As Clinton prepares for the general election, Democrats have said she needs to paint him as bigoted and dangerous for the country, while presenting herself as a presidential alternative.
Trump has proved over the last several months that he can do and say pretty much anything without paying for it in the polls. His comments about immigrants, Muslims and women have not hurt him among the Republican primary electorate, and his insults of his opponents have worked. Clinton, on the other hand, is frequently scrutinized for her tone and rhetoric, so she is unlikely to profit by stooping to Trump’s level.
“The way to do it is for her to say she’s above it,” said Diana Owen, a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Instead of engaging in fights over her appearance, sweating tendencies or bathroom habits — all topics Trump has brought up — Owen said Clinton should focus on substance, which is her strong suit.
“Her approach will be to appear presidential, will be to show that she does have a grasp of policy,” Owen said. “Bernie Sanders seems like a pretty nice guy, but Donald Trump is not. So she doesn’t have to move the best friend dial that much. She needs to show that she’s competent.”
However, it may be difficult for Clinton to entirely stay out of the fray when dealing with Trump’s bombastic personality and tendency to shout over other candidates during debates. In the New York Times, Clinton advisers and other Democrats outlined this week a plan of attack she could take against Trump once she clinches the Democratic nomination. It involves using surrogates and outside groups supporting her to hit Trump on two levels: his temperament and whether he will really fight for the American people.
Clinton herself has started to focus on Trump in recent days. She told reporters in Minnesota Tuesday that she sees Trump heading toward the GOP nomination. “Obviously, he's done very well. He could be on the path,” Clinton said in Minneapolis, the Washington Post reported. “Maybe somebody else could intervene and rise above that.”
She also criticized the New York billionaire for not clearly rejecting the endorsement of David Duke, a white supremacist and a former leader of the Klu Klux Klan.
“I was very disappointed that he did not disavow what appears to be support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan,” Clinton told reporters. “That is exactly the kind of statement that should be repudiated upon hearing it.”
These remarks highlight an area where Clinton and her advisers believe she can hit Trump particularly hard: his intolerance. While speaking in Miami after picking up six states on Super Tuesday, she told a large crowd that America needed more “love and kindness” and emphasized the need to break down barriers and fight for civil rights. She also criticized Trump’s “make America great again” slogan, saying “America never stopped being great” and adding that “we do need to make America whole again.”
Earlier Tuesday, she emphasized this point in Minneapolis as well, telling reporters that she has heard bigotry from many of the Republican candidates.
“We can't let organizations and individuals that hold deplorable views about what it means to be an American to be given any credence at all,” Clinton said. “So I'm going to continue to speak out against bigotry wherever I see it or hear about it.”
— Monica Alba (@AlbaMonica) March 1, 2016
While Clinton focuses on a unifying message, Democratic groups are readying the dirty work of attacking Trump on his business interests and his unpresidential style. Correct the Record, a group affiliated with Clinton's campaign, has collected footage of Trump’s past comments that it believes could be used to turn off general election voters, the New York Times reported. The pro-Clinton super PAC American Bridge has people looking into records related to Trump’s business career, and Priorities USA, another pro-Clinton super PAC, is also planning ads that will take a similar approach against Trump.
Democratic strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg published Monday a memo that discussed how to run against Trump, based on information from a survey of likely Republican voters, Bloomberg Politics reported.
“The strongest attacks that we tested centered on his character and leadership qualities: that he is an egomaniac at the expense of the country, that he is disrespectful towards women, and that he cannot be trusted to keep the country safe and handle our nuclear weapons,” Carville and Greenberg wrote.
Clinton’s other secret weapons against Trump could be her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama. The 42nd president has acted as his wife's attack dog in the past, and has already been seen strongly criticizing Sanders on the campaign trail, so it would make sense for him to go after Trump in a general election. As for Obama, he has recently taken to chastising Trump from his post in the White House.
“Being president is a serious job,” Obama said at a press conference during a trip to California last month. “It’s not hosting a talk show or a reality show. It’s not promotion. It’s not marketing. It’s hard. And a lot of people count on us getting it right. And it’s not a matter of pandering and doing whatever will get you in the news on a given day.”
Despite all of these plans, Clinton will still need to hone her answers to questions that have dogged her campaign so far. While Sanders has refrained from attacking Clinton over her husband’s sexual history or her email scandal, he has repeatedly criticized her ties to Wall Street and the money she has received for speaking at banks like Goldman Sachs.
“I don’t think she has an answer for it because the evidence is clear,” Owen, the Georgetown professor, said of Clinton’s attempts to shrug off her close ties to Wall Street. “The only way she can get away from those questions is to not answer them, which is what she’s already been doing.”
As Clinton moves past Super Tuesday, she faces the challenge of preparing for a Trump fight without looking like she is overconfident about her chances for the Democratic nomination. Sanders’ supporters have criticized Clinton for acting like the presumptive nominee, and while she will likely pile up enough delegates to make Sanders’ path difficult, it does not look like he will drop out of the race any time soon.
Advisers have said in recent weeks that Clinton’s own tone may need to change in order to stand up to Trump. While she likes to focus on policy, she’ll need a strong voice to overcome the Republican’s antics. “Hope and change, not so much,” David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign, said to the New York Times. “More like hate and castrate.”