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Paris attacks force Sanders to adjust campaign strategy

Paris attacks force Sanders to adjust campaign strategy
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Friday’s Paris attacks have forced Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic MORE to adjust his strategy to prove to Democrats that he’s fit to be commander in chief. 

While Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Monica Lewinsky responds to viral HBO intern's mistake: 'It gets better' Virginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP MORE has a distinct edge in experience on the international stage and regularly evokes that as part of her presidential bid, Sanders has run — until last weekend — a campaign with little mention of national security.

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He devoted just a few seconds of his opening statement during Saturday’s Democratic debate to the terror attacks before turning back to his usual focus on income inequality, but his rivals embraced the issue.

With so much emphasis being placed on preventing another terrorist attack in the United States, Sanders is being pushed into territory he hadn’t planned to tread.

“If voters don’t see you as addressing the things they are worrying about and thinking about, you probably won’t get their attention,” said Joel Rubin, a former deputy secretary of State for House affairs under Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryBudowsky: President Biden for the Nobel Peace Prize Bishops to debate banning communion for president In Europe, Biden seeks to reassert U.S. climate leadership MORE

“Foreign affairs and national security issues — the political community doesn’t always say these are the most important things, and for good reason,” Rubin, who is running for Congress in Maryland as a Democrat, added.  “But when it rears its ugly head and when a crisis comes out and the American people are talking about it, candidates create risks for themselves if they don’t communicate on those topics.”

Although Sanders addressed his ideas on combating terrorism later in the debate, some Democrats were surprised by his apparent unwillingness to delve into the issue.

“All of a sudden I heard this jarring switch to income inequality,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said about how Sanders kicked off the debate in Iowa.

“I know they were trying to shift the debate back to their turf, but it was so jarring. That’s not what Americans wanted to hear. They had been watching nonstop coverage of the tragedy in Paris for a full 24 hours at that point.” 

It typifies how Sanders rarely brings up national security on the stump, and polls show Clinton has a major lead in trust among Democratic voters on the issue. But Sanders doesn’t have to close that gap, Rubin and others agree, he just needs to demonstrate a “base level of confidence.”  

The attacks in Paris, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed more than 120 people, have already prompted a palpable change in Sanders’s message. 

He opened his Monday night rally in Cleveland with 10 minutes touching on foreign policy, a rare departure from his typical stump speech.

He dug in on his support for accepting thousands of Syrian refugees in the U.S. despite concerns from many GOP politicians terrorists could also sneak in. And he came to President Obama’s defense after Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the president is projecting weakness abroad.

But he signaled that he wouldn’t be deterred from his economically focused campaign message, pushing back against the criticism. 

“There are those, including many Republicans, some in the media, who think that because of this horrific attack, the only thing we should focus on is defeating ISIS,” he said.

“Yes, we will lead the world in defeating ISIS, but at the same time, we will rebuild the disappearing middle class of this country. We are a great nation, and we can accomplish both goals.” 

Sanders has consistently put his focus on the economy while on the trail; his campaign website only added a “war and peace” section in late September, weeks before the first Democratic debate.

And at times, he has mixed his messages. 

Just two days before Obama announced the deployment of an additional group of special operations troops to train allied forces fighting ISIS in Syria, Sanders told CNN that “we need American troops there to provide the training to those groups.”

But once Obama made that announcement, Sanders struck a different tone in a statement from a spokesman that said he “expressed concern about the United States being drawn into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war which could lead to perpetual warfare.” 

The Sanders campaign did not return requests to clarify his views. 

Clinton has years of foreign policy experience as secretary of State and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, illustrated by her ability at Saturday’s debate to talk in detail and with nuance about the war on terrorism. 

During both his House and Senate career, Sanders’s committee assignments have included Senate Budget and House Financial Services, with Senate Veterans’ Affairs the closest to foreign policy. 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t openings for him to attack Clinton where she seemingly has an advantage.

“He can’t match her on experience because she’s been secretary of State, but he can question whether or not some of her decisions have been the right one,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a nonpartisan political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

He noted her vote to authorize the Iraq War and her connection to the Obama administration’s foreign policy as two potential places of attack. 

That’s the strategy Sanders took during the foreign policy portion of Saturday’s debate, where he sought to tie Clinton’s Iraq vote to the rise of ISIS and similar groups.  

And Clinton didn’t do herself any favors when she defended her financial support from Wall Street by noting her work with the banking industry after 9/11.

That prompted criticism from Sanders on Tuesday during an interview with Yahoo News, where he panned the comment as “silly and a little bit absurd.”

It’s unlikely, however, that Sanders wants to dig in for a full-on foreign policy battle.

“Does he really want to go all in and shift enough of his focus onto this issue?” Skelley said. 

“His campaign is less about doing exactly what it takes and what might be most politically wise to win, and maybe more about focusing on what he thinks is key.”