By Jonathan Easley and Amie Parnes - 01/14/16 06:00 AM EST
Chelsea Clinton is stepping onto the 2016 battlefield against Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Both sides gear up for debate UK's Corbyn calls for unity after reelection as Labour Party head Green group endorses in key Senate races MORE (I-Vt.), a shift that some Democrats are interpreting as a sign of trouble for her mother’s presidential campaign.
Making her first solo appearance on the stump, Chelsea Clinton late Tuesday ripped Sanders over his proposals on healthcare and college affordability, arguing the White House hopeful wants to “dismantle” ObamaCare and Medicare.
They note that Chelsea Clinton has mostly been used to highlight Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: We are proud of African-American history museum Kim Kardashian confirms: 'I stand with Hillary' No, Doctor: Hillary's eyes are just Hillary's eyes MORE’s softer side as a mother and grandmother and say she seemed uncomfortable shedding her first daughter persona for the role of attack dog.
“The thing that tells you as much as anything about [the Clinton campaign’s] current state of mind is Chelsea going on the attack. It tells you everything you need to know,” said one Democratic strategist. “That this [challenge from Sanders] is real and they’ve got to be freaking out.”
The attack caught many Democrats, including Sanders and his supporters, by surprise.
Following Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, CNN played the clip of Chelsea Clinton’s criticism directly to Sanders. The Vermont senator held back a wry smile as he offered a measured rebuke of Chelsea, who is nearly 40 years his junior.
“As much as I admire Chelsea, she didn’t read the plan,” he said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is one of only two members of Congress who has endorsed Sanders for president, told The Hill the attacks are a sign the Clinton campaign is worried about Sanders’s rise in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I perhaps could see it coming from Bill, but I was taken aback hearing it from Chelsea,” said Grijalva, who backed President Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 after first endorsing John Edwards.
“I was surprised and thought it was out of character. It seems the Clinton campaign is going into full destruction mode very early in this process.”
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon defended Chelsea Clinton as a “very spirited and fierce advocate for her parents.”
Asked if she would continue to attack Sanders and whether she’s suited for the role, Fallon called Chelsea Clinton “policy-obsessed” and said the attack lines had not been planned.
“Her comments were spontaneous and spoke to the fact that she follows these issues closely herself and is deeply studious of the details of the candidate’s policy proposals,” he said.
While the media zeroed in on the Sanders lines, they represented only a small portion of Chelsea Clinton’s remarks at the event in New Hampshire, where she spoke at length about her upbringing and how it has influenced her as she raises her own family.
That’s similar to the role she played during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she worked to soften her mother’s image, particularly during events on college campuses. Rather than attack then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama directly, Chelsea Clinton sought to make inroads among the young voters that her mother was struggling to reach.
But having grown up in politics, Chelsea Clinton likely knew that her criticism of Sanders would make headlines.
Democrats interviewed by The Hill were scratching their heads over why she’d be so aggressive in taking on her mother’s rival for the Democratic nomination at this stage, with new polls showing Sanders in the lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I’m 100 percent for sharp elbows and blunt contrasts in campaigns, including paid negative ads in every possible medium,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “But I cringe at the idea of using close family members to carry personal attacks, especially when the opponent is well-positioned to say the attack is untrue and desperate.”
It’s not just the messenger that’s drawing scrutiny.
Many Democrats are puzzled that the Clinton campaign would open up a front against Sanders on healthcare, arguing that the questions the campaign is raising over how he intends to pay for his plan resemble Republican talking points.
Furthermore, Sanders’s desire for a single-payer system is wildly popular among the grassroots liberals who are key in the early-voting states.
“I really regret that the Clinton campaign sent Chelsea out to make the attack that she made,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod said on CNN on Tuesday night. “I don’t think it was the right attack. ... It’s not really an honest attack, and it’s not something that they should have sent her out to do.”
Democrats note that Chelsea Clinton taking on a more aggressive role in the campaign could make her a target, particularly for Republicans.
She has given paid speeches on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, has close ties to Wall Street and benefited from the Clinton name in securing a media job with NBC in 2014 that reportedly paid $600,000 annually.
Nobody expects Sanders will go down that road. Speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, he avoided a question about whether he thinks Chelsea Clinton is a powerful voice for her parents, saying only that “I think she is wrong” about his healthcare plan.
But the list of Clinton enemies is long, and at the top of it right now is GOP front-runner Donald Trump, for whom nothing is out of bounds.
“This makes Chelsea just another political player in the arena, and if I was Chelsea, that’s not where I’d want to be,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
Democrats say she should reprise her role from 2008 and try to help her mother connect with voters on a personal level.
“The best role for her is to help in humanizing Hillary and talking about what a great mother and grandmother she is,” Bannon said. “Hillary has plenty of edge on her own, she doesn’t need help there. She has such an asset in her family if only they can use them the right way.”