Clinton faces decision in Trump attack strategy

Clinton faces decision in Trump attack strategy
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE’s shifting rhetoric on key issues such as immigration is presenting the campaign of his rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE with a challenge.

The Clinton campaign could seek to portray Trump as a flip-flopper, given his apparent softening on the issue of whether he would try to deport all illegal immigrants, in particular.

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But such a tactic carries risks, even though it has been successful in other recent presidential campaigns. It was used effectively by then-President George W. Bush against his Democratic challenger Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLet's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy The Memo: Democrats struggle to find the strongest swing-state candidate 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster MORE (Mass.) in 2004, for example.

The biggest danger is that suggestions that Trump is prone to flip-flopping could take the focus away from the more extreme statements he has made during his campaign. 

Trump’s newly minted language is clearly meant to ease voters’ resistance to him. The Clinton campaign doesn’t want to inadvertently play into his hands, by mounting a “flip-flop” attack that could leave voters thinking he is not as much of a zealot as he is sometimes portrayed.

Democratic strategists are divided on the issue but many believe there are other, better routes than suggesting Trump acts out of political expediency.

“Sixty percent of the population thinks he is not fit to be president,” said Joe Trippi, who was the campaign manager of Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the White House. “I would reinforce that and not do anything to take people off it. If the race is about who is fit to be president, Donald Trump is not likely to win.”

Democrats including Trippi note that while Clinton has her own challenges in terms of how she is perceived by voters — especially on questions of honesty and trustworthiness — the issue of Trump’s readiness for the Oval Office could ultimately be more important.

In a Bloomberg poll released earlier this month, only 38 percent of likely voters said that Trump was ready to lead the nation “on day one in office.” Clinton’s rating on the same question was almost 20 points better, at 56 percent.

A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday found 66 percent of likely voters saying that, whether they planned to vote for her or not, Clinton was “qualified” to be president. Only 40 percent said the same about Trump.

Clinton has so far stayed away from arguing that Trump has flip-flopped, instead pressing the idea that he is simply an unacceptable choice as president. In a major speech on Thursday, she accused Trump of “stoking” what she called “a paranoid fringe in our politics, steeped in racial resentment.”   

Trump, at a rally the same day, called Clinton a “bigot” while also tweeting an accusation that she was engaged in “race-baiting.”

Democrats profess no concern about such exchanges. Instead, they suggest those moments reinforce memories of the controversies that Trump has got himself into at other points in the campaign — and which, they say, have caused him irreparable harm.

“The fundamental view of Donald Trump has settled in,” said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, a veteran of many presidential campaigns. “He could do two or three weeks of quote-unquote ‘pivoting’ or ‘modifying’ his image and he couldn’t remotely have the same impact as when he went after Mr. and Mrs. Khan.”

Trump’s criticisms of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a U.S. army officer who was killed in Iraq, “reached everyone in the country,” Shrum added. “It was revealing of the nastiness of his character, it showed incredible disrespect for people who had lost their son and it manifested utter prejudice against Muslims. I don’t know how you undo that.”

Some Democrats do see merit in trying to make the “flip flop” charge stick to Trump, however.

Brad Bannon, a Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist, said that given the choice between painting Trump as an extremist or a slave to expediency, “I would vote for ‘flip-flopper.’”

“An essential element of making a decision about a presidential candidate is whether that person has the leadership ability to be an effective commander-in-chief,” he said.

“If you show a guy like Trump who is changing his positions about immigration, or whether or not he would defend our NATO allies from [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, that shows he is not a leader. And I think that is the essential component in making the decision in a presidential race.”

Others say there is a political “sweet spot” that Clinton could find against Trump.

Rather than portray him as a flip-flopper per se, the former secretary of State could suggest that her opponent’s shifts spring from a more general lack of knowledge and depth. That way, the shifts serve to reinforce the broader argument that he is not ready for the Oval Office.

“It’s not so much that he’s a flip-flopper as that he doesn’t know where he’s at,” said Trippi. “I would use the meandering around on those issues in that context. He knows more than the generals do about ISIS? He doesn’t know if he wants to deport all of them [illegal immigrants] or some of them? Come on! He is not fit to be president.”