Dem ‘nail-biter’ in early states

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The Democratic presidential race is tightening just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, renewing the sense among some Democrats that Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders looks to Golden State for comeback hopes Secret Service protects Sanders as audience members rush stage Five things Clinton needs to do to win the California primary MORE could sweep the first two voting states and challenge Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSanders looks to Golden State for comeback hopes Secret Service protects Sanders as audience members rush stage Ex-pharma CEO Martin Shkreli: I didn’t endorse Trump MORE over the long haul.

New polling data released over the weekend shows close races in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote.

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After weeks in which it appeared that Clinton had pulled away in Iowa, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found the Vermont senator within 3 points of the front-runner there.

“It’s been tight in Iowa the whole time, even if the polls didn’t always show it,” said Sam Roecker, a Democratic strategist in Iowa not affiliated with either candidate. “Both campaigns have strong ground operations and have been putting in the time here. It was always going to be close.”

Meanwhile, the same poll found Sanders maintaining a 4-point lead over the former secretary of State in New Hampshire. In both surveys, the candidates are close enough that the results are within the margin of error.

Clinton campaign aides say they always expected the polls to tighten and that the race would be competitive until the end. 

“Yes, it’s a bit of a nail-biter,” one Clinton ally acknowledged. “But we always knew it was going to be tight and down to the wire. That’s not surprising.”

Democrats say Iowa and New Hampshire are must-win states for Sanders, who, despite pulling huge crowds on the campaign trail and raising tens of millions of dollars, still has to prove he’s a viable challenger once voting begins.

Furthermore, the political terrain becomes far more favorable for Clinton beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton holds a significant lead over Sanders among the black and Hispanic voters who make up significant portions of the electorate in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two states to vote.

“If Sanders loses one of these first two states, it’s over for him and there’s no argument any more,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, a veteran of Howard Dean’s 2004 insurgent presidential campaign.

Most Democrats still believe that even if Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, his appeal to the progressive base is too narrow to carry him to victory over Clinton, who has the support of nearly the entire Democratic establishment.

That’s the sense among some in Clinton World as well. One associate who regularly speaks to the campaign acknowledged that “it’s not easy” to watch the polls tighten.  “But I think we’ll prevail anyway.”

Still, the Clinton campaign, acutely aware that her third-place finish in Iowa in 2008 opened the door to President Obama winning the nomination, is seeking to stamp out Sanders’s campaign before it notches an early victory.

This weekend, the Clinton campaign sent out emails from each of the early-voting states criticizing Sanders’s record on gun control.

On Friday, the Clinton campaign held an impromptu conference call with reporters to excoriate the Sanders team for claiming the Vermont senator’s position on gun control is in line with President Obama’s.

Gun control is one of the few issues where Clinton can come at Sanders from the left, and the issue is animating the liberal base with an assist from Obama, who appears determined to make gun control the signature issue of his final year in office.

“Democratic voters are riled up over this issue right now, so this is a smart move by Hillary Clinton and a winning issue for her, no doubt about it,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman.

The Sanders campaign is firing back, saying Clinton “has been all over the map” on gun control and calling the attacks a desperate, politically driven ploy.

“What is happening is you’re seeing the polls, and I think the Clinton campaign is getting very nervous,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Monday on CNN’s New Day.  

The Sanders campaign has been more combative in recent days and willing to engage in the kind of politics the candidate has largely eschewed. At a town hall in Iowa on Friday night, Sanders, in response to a question, called former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonFive things Clinton needs to do to win the California primary Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Clinton's ace in the hole: Obama MORE’s behavior toward women “totally disgraceful.”

But Sanders’s final pitch to voters ahead the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses is primarily centered on electability. It’s a crucial argument for Sanders campaign, which is
battling the perception that the insurgent candidate and self-described democratic socialist would be a disaster in the general election.

Aides have long believed that the media ignores polls that show Sanders performing better in head-to-head match-ups against Republicans. Last week the campaign held regular conference calls with reporters to highlight those
figures.

New data over the weekend bolstered that argument, with Iowa and New Hampshire polls showing Sanders well ahead of Clinton in theoretical match-ups against Republicans in those states.

“Bernie’s substantial advantage over Republicans in the general election versus Secretary Clinton is another important reason that Democratic primary voters should choose him as our nominee,” Weaver said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

In addition, the Sanders campaign has argued that the large crowds he’s attracting on the campaign trail are an indication of an enthusiasm gap between him and Clinton. Supporters say if Sanders is the general election candidate, that energy will translate into victories for down-ballot Democrats as well.

“Any objective look at our campaigns would suggest we have the energy, we can drive a large voter turnout,” Weaver said Sunday.

Democrats interviewed by The Hill say Sanders is benefiting in the head-to-head match-ups right now because Clinton has spent years in the crosshairs of Republicans, who will quickly turn their fire on Sanders if he’s the nominee.

Furthermore, Democrats are incensed by what they view as the hateful rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates and believe that will be enough to drive liberal voters to the polls no matter who wins the nomination.

Democrats are nonetheless impressed by how competitive Sanders has been in taking on a candidate who began the cycle as the presumptive nominee. Even if Sanders’s success only endures through early February, they say, he has made a lasting impression on the race.

“Hillary Clinton still remains a prohibitive favorite for the nomination, although it sure looks like some Democratic activists in the early states want to send a message that they want the party to move to the left,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

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