As Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump tweets: 'Trump Russia story is a hoax' Path to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Cybersecurity: New questions for House Intel chair over WH visit | Cyber war debate heats up | Firm finds security flaws in 'panic buttons' MORE builds what her campaign calls an “insurmountable” lead in the Democratic presidential primary, she is increasingly setting her sights on the GOP and the general election.
In a speech in Seattle Tuesday night, for example, Clinton’s only reference to the race against Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Trump budget ‘must be defeated’ The Hill's 12:30 Report Sanders will 'absolutely' work with Trump to lower prescription drug costs MORE was to mention her victory in Arizona’s primary.
Sanders supporters, particularly young voters, will be crucial in the general election, Democrats say, and Clinton risks alienating them if she acts like the race is over — especially since Sanders continues to win states, including Idaho and Utah this week.
“They have to approach this with kid gloves,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who has endorsed Clinton.
“She and her team have to be very, very careful that they don't unduly antagonize Sen. Sanders or, more importantly, Sen. Sanders’s supporters.”
Another ally close to Clinton agreed, adding she “can’t take the primary for granted. She has to avoid being presumptuous at all costs in order for the party to come together.”
Team Clinton expects Sanders to pick up more states as the Democratic primary enters its next phase. Her aides maintain that she is focused on winning every possible delegate and will be competitive in the states left on the calendar.
One aide pointed out that while Clinton gave a speech Monday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington — where she took shots at Trump — she also attended an organizing event in Arizona later in the day.
And while Clinton gave an overarching speech on terrorism at Stanford on Thursday, she used the trip to stump in California, the biggest delegate prize of all.
In interviews, Clinton has brushed off talk that she has nearly sealed the nomination.
“I’m not yet the nominee,” she said on CNN earlier this week. “I hope to be the nominee.”
Sanders, meanwhile, insists the race is far from over.
“The path forward is a pretty good path for us,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
In a fundraising email to supporters on Wednesday, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that while the Clintons reached their “high water mark” with their sweep of states last week, “now it’s our turn to start winning in many of the remaining states until we take the pledged delegate lead on June 7.”
But with Clinton leading the total delegate count 1,681 to 927, the road ahead for Sanders is daunting. Given her lead, some political observers argue Clinton could take the liberty of not agreeing to further debates with Sanders.
“If circumstances change, if he over-performs, or if there’s some other tactical reason, then the Clinton campaign should pay attention to the facts on the ground, but right now, I don’t see it in her interest to take part in debates,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It’s decreasingly beneficial to her.”
Instead, Clinton can respond to Sanders in speeches and other platforms, allies say.
“… She can continue to engaged on the ‘field of ideas,’ talking about topics of interest to his backers, as well as hers, so that she can begin to build the foundation of post-primary unity, which will be important going into the fall,” said one longtime Clinton adviser, who added that Sanders “cannot be ignored.”
Still, the adviser continued, “That does not mean she has to be preoccupied with him or worry about spending too much time attacking his positions.”
Other longtime allies agree, saying Clinton — who they say is just shy of clinching the nomination — should plow forward and focus on Trump in what will inarguably be a grueling general election battle.
“Look, there is some recognition that Sanders has added important issues to the debate, but at the same time, the longer we spend money and have to act as though there’s a primary while the other side is killing themselves, it’s wasted time for us,” one friend of the Clintons said.
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said Clinton is doing exactly what she needs to do.
“I’m not convinced she does need to keep a foot in the primary,” Setzer said, adding that Clinton played the most recent set of Western states “exactly right.”
Team Clinton, she said, spent “minimally in Arizona” and won while “not spending a dime in Utah and Idaho and letting Sanders gain a few delegates in small states that won’t matter in the general.”
“The message seemed to be ‘Sanders may very well win more delegates, but this thing is over, baby, over,’” she said.