Sanders-Clinton race tightens with media fanning flames

Sanders-Clinton race tightens with media fanning flames
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The Democratic presidential primary fight between Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonScaramucci deleting old tweets to avoid 'distraction' Sunday shows preview: Scaramucci makes TV debut as new communication chief OPINION | Dems need a fresh face for 2020: Try Kamala Harris MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersParliamentarian deals setback to GOP repeal bill OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? OPINION | They told us to abandon ObamaCare — then came the resistance MORE has shifted from a sleepy race to a thriller as the candidates head down the final stretch to the Iowa caucuses.

New polling released on Tuesday showed Sanders overtaking Clinton in Iowa and building on his lead in New Hampshire.

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Also on Tuesday, the Vermont senator won the support of the liberal group MoveOn, which has pledged to marshal its considerable base of grassroots liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire to help Sanders build on his leads in the first two states to vote.

Clinton, meanwhile, is on the offensive as she seeks to beat back a challenge from the insurgent Independent. At a campaign rally in Iowa on Tuesday, she opened up new lines of attack against Sanders, framing herself as the only candidate who has walked the walk in taking on moneyed corporate interests.

The media, which has been captivated by the drama surrounding the Republican presidential contest, has picked up on the momentum shift and turned its attention to the long-dormant Democratic race.

It’s become a far more competitive contest than anyone foresaw after the former secretary of State glided through the fall seeming to have cemented her status as the presumptive nominee.

“We have a race,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

A Monmouth University survey released on Tuesday established Sanders as the front-runner in New Hampshire, finding him with a healthy 14-point lead and an advantage among nearly every demographic group in the state, including women. 

Those findings could help energize his supporters in Iowa, where the race is much closer. But here too, Sanders is on an upward trajectory.

A Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday found Clinton’s lead in Iowa reduced from 18 points to 6, while a Quinnipiac University survey found that Sanders has overtaken Clinton in the Hawkeye State, turning an 11-point deficit into a 5-point lead.

“The playing field has changed,” said Quinnipiac polling director Peter A. Brown. “Sen. Sanders’ surge seems based on the perception by Iowa Democrats that he is a better fit for Iowans. They see him, by solid double-digit margins, as more sharing their values, more honest and trustworthy and viewed more favorably overall than is Secretary Clinton.”

Meanwhile, MoveOn announced its members had voted overwhelmingly and in record fashion to support Sanders over Clinton in the Democratic primary.

The endorsement from the group, which backed then-Illinois Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaJeb Bush calls out Republicans silent on Trump's Russia probe Trump launches all-out assault on Mueller probe Immigration agents planning raids next week targeting teenage gang members MORE over Clinton in 2008, was expected, but it strengthens Sanders’s grasp on a progressive base that has turned out for him by the thousands on the campaign trail and has made him a small-dollar fundraising juggernaut.

The liberal grassroots group, which claims 8 million members nationwide, said it would move forward with the aim of turning out more than 40,000 voters in Iowa and 30,000 in New Hampshire in support of Sanders on Election Day.

Headline writers have taken notice of the shift in the race.

For months, reporters have trained the bulk of their attention on the GOP side, where front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPro-Trump group protests CNN coverage NY Times rips Spicer in goodbye editorial NSA chief: Now is 'not the best time' for US-Russia cyber unit MORE has commanded outsized media attention and the huge field of contenders has made for gripping drama and endless copy.

But as the polls have tightened, the media, craving a competitive race, has latched onto Sanders’s rise, even as most Democrats continue to believe that the Vermont senator has no real shot at the nomination and could be a disastrous general election candidate.

“I think [the media] are over eager to write about polls on both sides of the aisle,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. “Poll results are not votes.”

Still, some prominent liberal voices have begun publicly warning that the controversial Trump, who is despised by most Democrats, has a shot at defeating whichever Democrat emerges as the nominee.

Vice President Biden has said he thinks “it’s possible” the outspoken billionaire could win the White House. 

Liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson warned of the same on Tuesday, praising Sanders’s grassroots energy and outsider campaign while informing Democrats that the party risks discovering in the general election that the nation is “disgusted” by “traditional politics and traditional politicians.”

It’s an argument that plays into Sanders’s hands and undercuts one of the Clinton campaign’s most salient arguments: electability. The senator has been making the case that he’s the more electable candidate, pointing to polling that shows him outperforming Clinton in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups against Republicans.

The Sanders campaign has also argued there is an enthusiasm gap between him and Clinton and that, in a general election, he will deliver down-ballot Democrats to victory by turning out the liberal voters who might otherwise stay home.

The former secretary of State, feeling the heat from Sanders’s rise, has returned in kind by seeking to cut into some his perceived strengths.

At a rally in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday in which she accepted the endorsement of the anti-gun group the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Clinton excoriated her rival for his past votes against new gun control measures, as well as for his “Medicare for All” healthcare plan, which she said would cost the nation trillions of dollars and result in higher taxes on the middle class.

Clinton also adopted one of Sanders’s primary arguments, claiming that she has the stronger record of taking on special interests, including Wall Street.

“Don’t talk to me about standing up to corporate interests and big powers,” Clinton said. “I’ve got the scars to show for it, and I’m proud of every single one of them.”

Most Democrats interviewed by The Hill still believe Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. They say Sanders is running strong in Iowa and New Hampshire because his supporters are largely white progressives who make up a majority of voters in both states.

Once the race turns to more diverse electorates in South Carolina, Nevada and the Deep South, her supporters say, Clinton will put Sanders away.

“When you say the early primary states, you’re talking about two states,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a Clinton supporter, told reporters on Tuesday. “You’re talking about two states that are relatively, uh — how do I want to say it diplomatically — narrow constituencies.”

Said another Clinton ally: “I think it slows us down a little if Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, but I can’t see him taking it much further than New Hampshire. I just don’t think he has the resources to compete in these other states, and we’re way up in the polls in South Carolina and Nevada.”

The Sanders campaign, flush with cash and energized by the candidate’s recent run of polling success, is moving to correct that perception.

Sanders has ramped up his minority outreach efforts, and the campaign is looking beyond the carve-out states as it girds for an extended primary battle.

On a conference call with reporters late last week, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said they have “thousands and thousands” of volunteers holding events and organizing to maximize turnout for what are being called the “SEC primary” states.

The campaign is about “half-way staffed” in those Southeastern 11 states, Weaver said, with about 60 paid staffers on the ground.

“We’ve built the infrastructure and have access to the resources that will allow us to go toe-to-toe with our Democratic competitors all the way to the convention next summer,” Weaver said. 

Mike Lillis and Amie Parnes contributed.

–This story was updated at 7:40 p.m.