Iowa fights grow nastier

Greg Nash

The gloves are coming off in Iowa, as the leading candidates in both parties battle fiercely for advantage before Monday’s caucuses.

Tensions are rising on the Democratic side, with Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHouse Republican group raised more than M in October Chaffetz says he'll vote for Trump Trump blasts Clinton for criticizing hotel opening MORE’s team trying to rebuff the advance of a newly aggressive Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton: AT&T deal 'raises questions and concerns' A Berniecrat's Argument Against Jill Stein and For Hillary Clinton Trump and millennials: He might do better than we think MORE. Among Republicans, the long-standing “bromance” between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse Republican group raised more than M in October Five takeaways from Florida Senate debate Chaffetz says he'll vote for Trump MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzCruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed Commerce official will hit critics of domain name transition The media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails MORE has given way to open hostilities.

The key question for all the candidates, however, is how far they can go in their attacks without causing a backlash. 

Trump and Cruz seem to be less worried on that score than their Democratic counterparts. Trump has begun referring to Cruz as “the Canadian” — a reference to his birthplace and the argument that he may not be eligible to be president — and on Tuesday morning told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the Texas senator “looks like a jerk.”

The Cruz campaign for its part released its first full-blown negative ad against the business mogul in recent days, assailing him for having “New York values.”

Doug Gross, a Republican strategist in Iowa who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign, said there were more dangers for Cruz in taking such a combative approach — in part because Trump is such an unusual candidate that he may be judged by a different, and more forgiving, yardstick.

“I think when Cruz counterattacks, it can make him look mean, so it will drive up his negatives,” Gross said. “People who support Trump, that is largely a personality vote. They like his personality, they are not thinking of his ‘values’ in that way.”

The new tone in the Democratic race has become equally plain in recent days, including at Monday night’s town-hall forum in Des Moines. There, Sanders directly assailed the former first lady on her vote on the Iraq War more than a decade ago and on her ties to Wall Street. He noted that he supported stronger regulations of the financial industry, adding, “see where Hillary Clinton was on that issue.”

Clinton veered away from direct attacks on Sanders even as her campaign blasted emails to reporters attacking the Vermonter’s record on gun control and foreign policy as well as highlighting his controversial description of some prominent liberal groups, including Planned Parenthood, as part of “the establishment.”

The Clinton campaign has also recently attacked Sanders’s preference for a single-payer healthcare system, with daughter Chelsea Clinton accusing him of wanting to “dismantle” ObamaCare, Medicare and other government programs. Hillary Clinton later defended those remarks.

Some Democrats assert that the newly combative tone of the campaign holds more peril for Clinton, as the party’s front-runner, than it does for Sanders.

“The first rule is, if you want to get into the game, you have to get as close as you can with the front-runner. He’s doing that,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said.

Sheinkopf, who has worked for Clinton in the past but is not doing so in this campaign, added, “It makes no sense for her to draw the underdog closer to her. ... If she engages with him, it make him seem more important. Why would you do that? But they are doing that more often, which means he becomes more mainstream — and she becomes more bland.”

Another Democratic strategist, Joe Trippi, offered a different perspective. He argued it was tricky for both Sanders and Clinton to engage in a war of words because polls indicate they are both held in high esteem by Democrats at large. He contrasted that with the Republican race, where the party has a more jagged splinter between its various factions.

“The women that like Hillary? Bernie is not going to get them by attacking her. And the young people who like Bernie? Hillary is not going to get them by attacking him,” Trippi said.

Yet, at the same time, candidates cannot just sit back and avoid attacks, especially when there are some undecided voters still to be won over — voters who could potentially be the difference between victory and defeat.

“That’s the tightrope you have to walk,” Trippi asserted. “Even among the undecideds, you are often dealing with someone who likes Hillary Clinton, who likes Bernie Sanders, but can’t make up their minds. If you attack, they could decide, ‘I thought I liked you but you’re negative, so I’m going to vote for the other one.’ ”

At least neither Clinton nor Sanders has to worry about a third candidate coming through the middle — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley draws negligible support in the polls.

In the multi-candidate Republican field, things look a little different. 

According to Gross, Trump has been able to re-establish his lead in the Hawkeye State over Cruz, who briefly took the top spot, in part because Cruz has also been targeted by lower-ranking candidates such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), as well as by super-PACs.

Gross noted that anti-Cruz ads have focused on everything from his position on immigration to his attitude toward tithing but “their narrative has been that he can’t be trusted.” That, in turn, he added, has “put a damper” on Cruz’s rise.

The fire is only likely to intensify on both sides between now and Monday’s caucuses, however. And Gross, asked about whether he was surprised at the sniping on the Democratic side, as well as in his own party, demurred.

“Not really,” he said. “It is all about the times. The electorate on both sides is energized by its disaffection, not by its sense of hope.”