Clinton seeks to solve Iowa puzzle

Clinton seeks to solve Iowa puzzle
© Getty Images

In the race to win Iowa’s caucuses, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report DNC sues Russia, Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over alleged election interference MORE is back where she started. 

Less than a week before her first big test in the Democratic primary, Clinton is confronting an eerily similar mood to 2008, when Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism Colorado state lawmakers advance measure to rename highway after Obama MORE upset her in the Hawkeye State.

Back then, Clinton leaned on her experience, hoping it would result in a win.

She’s hitting many of the same keys in this go-around against Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' Chuck Todd lashes out at Fox, defends wife in radio interview Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report MORE, seeking to cement the argument that she is the most “tested” candidate in her party.

“Somehow, they got back to the same structure as 2008,” said Pat Rynard, founder of the Democratic news site IowaStartingLine.com. “And it’s playing out in the same way.”

A Democratic strategist who regularly speaks to members of Clinton’s team said the campaign has clearly made a decision to present her as the “serious, sober, and responsible one in the race.”

“That’s the card they’re playing,” the strategist said. “They’ve made a clear decision that they’re not going to inspire people. Instead they’re going to make the case that they’re the legitimate option.”

Clinton could be forgiven for a déjà vu moment.

Sanders is appealing to the same liberal white voters and young people who were attracted to Obama.

Even the conversations are similar.

At Monday night’s Democratic town hall, for example, Sanders criticized Clinton for her vote on the Iraq War — an argument Obama used to win the state in 2008. 

Clinton’s latest effort in solving the puzzle that is Iowa is to home in on her experience, just as she did in 2008. It’s a shift for her campaign; the former first lady and secretary of State in previous weeks highlighted her electability.

A Clinton aide said the Democratic front-runner is telegraphing a two-part message in the lead up to Monday.

Her team wants to present her as tested, tough and proven. At the same time, she is aiming to cast herself as a strong advocate for those in need — whether it is young people looking for help to attend college or working people seeking healthcare for themselves and their children. 

The two points are intended to help Clinton compete with Sanders, who has won voters over with his criticism of the political system.

Clinton is casting herself as a “tireless fighter,” in the words of one aide, who has “spent her entire life taking on the toughest fights on behalf of families and children.”

And in contrast to Sanders, the Clinton team is suggesting she could actually get things done — both because she can win in November and because of her readiness to deal with Washington.

At the Monday night town hall, she praised a powerful Sanders campaign ad set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” that demonstrated the excitement his campaign has generated, particularly with young voters.

Clinton said she “loved it,” but added that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” 

The former New York senator doubled up at a get-out-the-caucus event in Iowa on Tuesday, jabbing the Vermont independent by saying, “there are a lot of good ideas in the world but you’ve got to be able to act on them.” 

Clinton received a boost from Obama earlier this week when the president offered a near-endorsement to Politico and said she was “extraordinarily experienced — and you know, smart and knows every policy inside and out.” 

Asked if he saw similarities between the Sanders campaign and his own, Obama said, “I don’t think that’s true.” 

But those watching the race on the ground can’t help but draw parallels — and wonder if Clinton will fail at solving the Iowa puzzle for a second time. 

Rynard gave credit to Clinton’s campaign for sharpening her message, especially when it comes to her experience on foreign policy and where she differs with Sanders on healthcare. But he still can’t square why Team Clinton has trouble making their candidate sound more exciting. 

“Why can’t they make her history of results more inspirational?” he asked. “What isn’t moving about a child getting more access to healthcare? What’s not inspirational about a young kid not being hit by rocket attacks because she negotiated a cease-fire?”

“I’m having trouble understanding that,” he said. 

—Ben Kamisar contributed to this report.