Dems fear their primary has reached danger zone

NEW YORK — Anxiety is rising among Democrats ahead of Tuesday’s primary in New York, with some fearing the battle between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight MORE has reached a danger zone.

Sanders has leveled some of his most biting criticism at Clinton in recent days, stirring passions in the race that insiders say could leave the party divided heading into November’s elections.

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“While this is the NFL, and everyone understands that it’s a full-contact sport, even in the NFL one gets a yellow flag for a late hit at the knees intended to hurt the other player,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

The Vermont senator has long drawn contrasts between himself and Clinton, but his attacks have grown more caustic of late, particularly with regard to the former first lady’s links to big financial companies.

At a huge rally in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sunday, Sanders said a speech Clinton gave to Goldman Sachs must have been delivered in “Shakespearean prose,” given the $225,000 fee she received.

He was equally scathing during last week’s debate when Clinton insisted that, during her time as a New York senator, she had “called out” banks for poor mortgage practices. 

“Secretary Clinton called them out. Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” Sanders responded. “And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements? So they must have been very, very upset by what you did.”

The left of the Democratic Party has long been uneasy about Clinton’s coziness with the corporate world. But the emphatic, persistent way in which Sanders is attacking her on the topic risks painting her as a cipher of Wall Street — and such a charge could drain liberal grassroots enthusiasm if she locks up the nomination.

“I am worried about the increasingly harsh tone and tenor of this campaign [that could] turn off Sanders supporters in the general [election],” said strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThe Memo: Trump pulls off a stone-cold stunner The Memo: Ending DACA a risky move for Trump Manchin pressed from both sides in reelection fight MORE (D-Nev.), who has endorsed Clinton. “I’m afraid they’re going to stay home.”

The tensions escalated on Monday, when the Sanders campaign alleged there were “serious apparent violations” of campaign finance laws under what it termed “a joint fundraising deal between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.”

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook shot back with a statement accusing the rival campaign of “false attacks.” 

Mook added, “As Senator Sanders faces nearly insurmountable odds, he is resorting to baseless accusations of illegal actions and poisoning the well for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.”

Clinton currently leads Sanders by 244 pledged delegates, according to The Associated Press’s delegate tracker, and has an even bigger advantage among the party’s unpledged superdelegates. She leads Sanders by 10 points in most polls of New York, where 247 pledged delegates are at stake.

Manley said that amplified rhetoric in the run-up to the New York primary has brought the party to the brink of serious problems. 

“It’s getting pretty intense,” he said, adding that the tone was “not necessarily crossing the line just yet, but it’s gotten a heck of a lot closer.”

Sanders supporters note that the former secretary of State and her allies are hardly shrinking violets. Former President Clinton suggested that Sanders supporters wanted to “shoot every third person on Wall Street” at a campaign stop Friday. 

On Monday, Hillary Clinton told supporters she “couldn’t believe it when Sen. Sanders said the parents of the Sandy Hook children did not deserve their day in court” — a reference to his opposition to allowing gun manufacturers to be sued in the wake of murders committed using their weapons. 

She also implied Sanders was not qualified to be president in an April 6 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sanders, asserted that the Clinton campaign began taking a more aggressive tack after she lost the April 5 Wisconsin primary. Her “Morning Joe” interview was given the following morning.

“That prompted a very strong response from him,” Devine said of Sanders.

Devine also noted that the overall political and media environment in New York is one in which rambunctious campaigning is par for the course, suggesting concerns about unity are overblown. He recalled the 2008 primary battle between Clinton and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP rep: North Korea wants Iran-type nuclear deal Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight Iran's president warns US will pay 'high cost' if Trump ditches nuclear deal MORE as harsher than the current cycle.

“If she starts holding press conference saying, ‘Shame on you, Bernie Sanders,’ like she said, ‘Shame on you, Barack Obama,’ then we might be getting there,” Devine said wryly.

Some unaligned strategists broadly agree that a coming-together among Democrats is likely in November.

“Sanders supporters are going to take their cues from Sanders, and when all is said and done, he’ll endorse Clinton and be gracious about it,” Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said. She added that in 2008, “all but the most die-hard” Clinton supporters ultimately backed Obama in the general election and “so too will the Sanders supporters go for Hillary.”

But — assuming Clinton is the nominee — there is another question: Will Sanders offer only a perfunctory endorsement or will he campaign for her with vigor?

“The bigger issue is the interpersonal relationship between [Clinton and Sanders],” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “How willing will he be to energetically and proactively campaign for her? That’s where the dynamic will have more weight.”