Las Vegas debate offers Clinton chance to right campaign ship

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) campaign has a chance to reclaim momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination at Thursday night’s debate in Las Vegas.

In the two weeks since the last debate in Philadelphia, where Clinton later admitted she had an off night, her campaign has experienced repeated missteps. This has led many analysts and supporters of her rivals to believe her campaign ship is listing and ripe for capsizing.

While Clinton’s chief rivals are sure to remain on the offensive, Clinton will have the opportunity Thursday to re-establish herself as the candidate to beat, a notion reinforced by most national and state polls despite apparent slips in key places.

“This is a very important debate for Sen. Clinton because you want to see if Philadelphia was just a one-time occurrence and a bad night or if her campaign has been knocked down a bit,” said one Democratic strategist.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa, where Clinton remains in a tight three-way race with former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDem pollster: Trump stronger politically than critics expected Obama updates summer reading list 2018 is the year India, China and Israel go to the moon MORE (Ill.), said Clinton needs a strong debate performance to counter the growing media narrative that her campaign is reeling.

“It’s an opportunity to stop the bleeding,” Goldford said. “Clearly, I think she has got to do something to limit the damage and try to recover.”

Goldford said Clinton’s biggest challenge is to demonstrably refute her rivals’ charges that she is a calculating politician more interested in winning office than taking principled stands on the issues.

He said Clinton has been “savaged” by her Democratic rivals in the two weeks since the Philadelphia debate, where her answers to pointed questions about the release of records from the Clinton Presidential Library and illegal immigrants in New York being given driver’s licenses gave her rivals ammunition. They have charged that Clinton’s “principles are always up for negotiation depending on what’s politically expedient,” Goldford said.  

“She has got to find a way to get past that,” he said. “She has got to do more than speak in clichés.”

One way to achieve that, said one Democratic strategist, is to take at least one opportunity to disarm the moderators, much like Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) did in an earlier debate.

In a debate earlier this year, Biden was asked by moderator and NBC anchor Brian Williams if he could be trusted to quell his tendency toward verbosity, which oftentimes has obscured his point and his chances.

“Yes,” Biden responded to laughs.

While Clinton’s challenges go deeper than a propensity to be long-winded, analysts and at least one Democratic strategist argued it would be effective for her to try to head off some questions about what her rivals say are her equivocating answers to hard questions.

Another challenge for Clinton, a Democratic strategist said, is answering the “toughness question” that arose in the aftermath of the last debate.

Much was made on the talk show circuit about what Clinton’s rivals said was her willingness to play the “gender card” in response to tough questioning from moderator Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

One strategist said there have been mixed messages coming from the Clinton campaign on that score, with her aides suggesting that Clinton’s rivals ganged up on her and the senator herself saying she was criticized because she is winning.

At the next debate, Clinton can show her toughness, a strength she had shown consistently until the Philadelphia debate, by pushing back against Edwards or Obama, the strategist said.

“She needs to show that she can get in an argument and win.”

A senior adviser to the campaign said a posting by the Drudge Report Tuesday that said a Clinton operative was warning CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer to focus on Clinton at the debate is “totally untrue.”

In an e-mail to supporters Tuesday, the Clinton campaign made it clear that they are aware they’re taking fire from their rivals, and as they often do, the campaign sought to turn it into a financial advantage.

“The campaign has changed,” Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle said in the e-mail. “You’ve probably noticed the shift. Our opponents are on the attack. But while they’re attacking Hillary, she’s attacking the problems facing America.”

The e-mail fundraising plea goes on to say that “we’re going to send Hillary to the next Democratic debate with a massive show of support by raising $1 million by the time she walks onto the stage.”

Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist supporting Clinton’s campaign, said the more intense the primaries and debates, the better off Clinton will be in a general election, since it would show that she has beaten tough opponents.

“The nomination will be worth more to her or anybody else if they beat someone,” Elmendorf said.

Elmendorf added that nothing in the Clinton game plan changed before or after the Philadelphia debate.

“They’re still ahead,” he said. “They’ve never taken Iowa for granted.”

Elmendorf said much of the narrative that has been written since Clinton’s sub-par performance in Philadelphia is the result of the “elite media” pushing for a closer, more suspenseful contest.

“The news media that’s covering this race wants to have a race to cover,” he said. Elmendorf added that Clinton is “a tough campaigner,” and as the race has taken its natural course, with the candidates engaging one another more frequently and more intensely, Clinton and her campaign are “well-equipped” to mix it up with the other candidates and win the nomination.

And Edwards, Obama and the rest of the field are sure to give her the opportunity to show that, as they are likely to keep the pressure on now that they see an opportunity, Goldford said.

“There’s blood in the water, and that attracts sharks,” Goldford said.