Hillary drops hammer on Sanders

Presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump aide: It's a 'touch early' for Hispanic outreach Joe Scarborough to Clinton: 'Stop lying’ about emails Trump: Watchdog report a 'disaster' for Clinton MORE is keeping her boot on Bernie SandersBernie SandersSecretary Clinton, voters need something good to feel about Sanders fundraises for Feingold in Wis. Senate race Poll: Clinton, Sanders in a dead heat in Calif. MORE’s neck.

The former secretary of State on Tuesday released a new ad in Iowa and New Hampshire on gun control, the one issue where she can credibly claim to be to the left of the Vermont Independent senator.

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Although the ad does not specifically mention Sanders, it seeks to build on Clinton’s strong performance in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas last month, during which she attacked her left-wing rival’s position on guns, with unexpected vigor.

Clinton allies also kept Sanders on defense for much of last week with suggestions that he and his team had been sexist in some of their language. A riff that Sanders has often voiced on the campaign trail — that “shouting” about gun control does not accomplish very much — was cast as sexist by Clinton herself. 

Surrogates of Clinton, including former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, made similar allegations after Sanders’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver lightheartedly suggested in an interview with Bloomberg Politics that Sanders was willing to consider, and “even interview,” Clinton for a vice-presidential slot.

The aggressive moves are meant to capitalize upon the strongest stretch yet Clinton has enjoyed in her campaign. 

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday found Clinton beating Sanders two-to-one among Democrats nationwide, 62 percent to 31 percent. When the same organizations conducted a poll a little more than a month ago, Clinton’s advantage was a mere seven percentage points.

“She is very much trying to put Bernie Sanders on the defensive, and it may be that she feels she has a chance to put this race away,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “I think a lot of this is trying to end this campaign as early as possible and basically blow Bernie Sanders out of the race.”

But neutralizing the threat from Sanders could be a difficult task. The senator appears to have the solid support of between 25 and 30 percent of the Democratic base, which should be sufficient to stay in the race for some time. 

Bannon and others think Clinton could effectively seal up the Democratic nomination with a win in the Iowa caucuses. A victory there would enable the Clinton machine to cast even a Sanders victory in New Hampshire, the next contest, as a byproduct of his residency in a neighboring state. From there, so the theory goes, it could be smooth sailing to the nomination.

Whether or not that proves to be the case, Clinton allies are convinced that assailing Sanders over gun control is a winning issue, putting her in alignment with the party’s liberal base.

The nearly simultaneous accusation of sexism only deepened the effectiveness of the gambit, Clinton allies argue.

“It was deftly done, and in a way that resonated, particularly when coupled with the ‘shouting’ line,” said one former Clinton aide. “It had an impact in terms of opening up some scrutiny on Sanders’s record. Up until this point, he had been largely untouched by critical review, given the propensity of most media and pundits to focus on the enthusiasm for his candidacy on the left.”

Democratic strategist and Clinton supporter Steve Elmendorf insisted, “My experience in talking to other progressives is that a lot of people were not aware of Sen. Sanders’s record on gun safety prior to the first debate. People assumed he was progressive just like [on] everything else, so his position has become known.”

Such remarks hint at another dynamic that is currently at play. Eight years ago, Clinton’s team took a less frontal approach to another challenger beloved by the left — then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Former President Bill Clinton was reportedly among those calling for a more aggressive approach against the young senator from the outset. But those voices apparently lost the internal campaign argument.

Many Democratic insiders say they see a determination on Clinton’s part not to make the same mistake twice.

“She and her campaign writ large seems to have really internalized the lessons from 2008,” said Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House aide who also had a senior role in Al Gore’s unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign. “In politics one is either on the offensive, [moving] the ball down the field to score, or playing defense and being scored upon. Politics is all about motion.”

Bannon said that in 2008, Clinton “waited until it was too late to go negative.”

“The best thing about running for president and losing is learning what you did wrong. Experience counts in presidential campaigns.”

Clinton’s position on the gun issue is not cut and dry. Back in 2008, she attacked Obama from the right on the issue, to the point where he exasperatedly compared her to Annie Oakley. Reacting to her new ad, Republicans sought to highlight these shifts.

“In 2008, the only thing that could break Clinton’s silence on guns was a political swipe at Obama for flip-flopping on Second Amendment issues,” said Jeff Bechdel, the communications director for America Rising, a Republican super-PAC. 

“But today, facing a different political opponent, Clinton is singing a different tune. The only thing consistent about Clinton’s position is that she is willing to be inconsistent on this issue to serve her political needs.”

Such critiques will hardly persuade Clinton allies to change tack, given how satisfied they are with the results.

“It has pushed Sanders back on his heels a bit,” the former Clinton aide said.