Clinton's Flint response brings political dividend

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Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAnalysis: Trump, Clinton plans not in line with balancing national debt Clinton: 'American people deserve better' than gun control stalemate Dems celebrate anniversary of gay marriage ruling MORE had Flint on her mind.

After reading about the water contamination crisis and how it had ravaged the Michigan community, she picked up the phone on the morning of January 11th, before she was set to appear at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, and called her longtime senior aide Jake Sullivan.

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What are we doing about this crisis? Clinton asked. 

Sullivan, who heads up the policy team for her presidential campaign, said a statement was being prepared to sound the alarm about what was going on in Flint.

“Alarm is all fine and good but I want action,” Clinton said, according to an aide familiar with the conversation.

The Democratic front-runner started talking about the water crisis in Flint earlier and more often than rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersDems celebrate anniversary of gay marriage ruling Sanders points to disconnect between 'mainstream media' and public Sanders not ready to endorse Clinton: 'Stand up, be bolder' MORE, and will have visited the city twice in the last five weeks before she returns Sunday for the Democratic debate.

The focus has paid off, some political observers say.

Clinton — who got off to a bumpy start in the Democratic primary — has seen her lead grow in Michigan ahead of the state’s March 8th primary, despite a huge push from Sanders.

Highlighting the crisis in Flint also helped Clinton with black voters, a group that carried her to wins in South Carolina and across a wide swath of other southern states on Super Tuesday. And Flint has become a regular part of her stump speech, part of a larger message about “breaking barriers.” 

“By now we know what happened in Flint, Michigan, don’t we?” she said this week at a Super Tuesday rally in Miami. “How a city’s children were poisoned by toxic waste because their governor wanted to save a little money.” 

Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who hails from Michigan, attributes some of her success in Super Tuesday states to the attention Clinton paid to Flint.

“Focusing on Flint gives her a real-time focus and a real-time example of her support of the African American community, even when it didn’t make the most political sense to be there,” Simmons said, adding that Clinton cut into her primary schedule for the visit.

By being early on the ground in Michigan, Clinton made Sanders appear late to the game when he visited three weeks later. And it also telegraphed the message of Clinton allies that Sanders has done little for the African American community in recent years, Simmons said. 

“I think the sentiment was, ‘Yes, he marched with Dr. King but what has he done lately?’” 

Clinton, Simmons added, never talked about “Sanders’s lack of attention, she just showed her care of the issue by giving it attention.” 

And those efforts apparently impressed the mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, who gave Clinton her endorsement even before Clinton’s visit.

Two days after Clinton phoned Sullivan to seize on the issue, Clinton dispatched Amanda Renteria, her political director and former chief of staff to Michigan Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowWaterways bill eyed as solution for Flint Clinton to headline fundraiser with Senate, House Democrats: report USDA extends comment period for 'certified organic' animal rule MORE (D), to the area. 

Still, Clemmie Harris, a visiting assistant professor of African American Studies and Public Affairs at Wesleyan University, said he believes Clinton’s early support of Flint isn’t “fundamentally going to change anyone who was skeptical on supporting her.”

“For those who are much more skeptical, who see this as political pandering, this is not as convincing to them because the response is mere words and the crisis continues on,” Harris said.

Sanders, who has acknowledged that his campaign got “killed” with African Americans in South Carolina, has plans to step up his outreach to African American communities for the upcoming primaries, Buzzfeed reported on Friday afternoon. Sanders along with campaign surrogates will meet with local activists in delegate-heavy states. 

“I think you’re going to see us doing — and I think the polls have indicated it — much better within the African-American community outside of the Deep South,” Sanders said on ABC’s This Week. “You’re going to see us much better in New York state, where I think we have a shot to win, in California and in Michigan.”

A PPP poll out last month showed Clinton with a 10-point lead over Sanders in Michigan, and other polls have her up by as much as 28 points.

Republicans have strayed from discussion of Flint, and none of the candidates on their side has made a trip to the area. Asked about the issue in Thursday night’s GOP debate in Detroit, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary MORE (R-Fla.) called Flint a “systematic failure at every level of government” and a “terrible thing.”

But “the politicizing of it is unfair,” he said. 

“I don’t think someone woke up one morning and said let’s figure out how to poison the water system and hurt someone,” Rubio said. 

Seconds after he made the comment, Clinton aides pounced.

Christina Reynolds, a communications aide on the Clinton campaign, took to Twitter and said, “We would love for Flint not to be a partisan issue. 

“The GOP should get involved and help fix it,” she said. “Raising an issue is not politicizing it.”