Hillary Clinton may have been facing Bernie Sanders at Wednesday's debate, but in reality she was shadowboxing Donald Trump.
The Republican frontrunner, who was the only GOP candidate who had supporters rallying in front of the Democratic debate, was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. He was named outright more than a dozen times, and referenced in the answers that didn’t refer to him directly.
In responding to questions about billionaire businessman, Clinton gave hints of what her general election strategy might look like. She mocked Trump’s “beautiful tall wall” and derided his divisiveness. She drew clear differences in their trade and climate strategies. And Clinton portrayed herself as earnest and wonky and positive, running “an inclusive campaign,” versus the real estate mogul she said profits from promoting divisiveness.
The debate, the last one scheduled for now on the Democratic side, comes as Clinton and Trump seek to cement their leads and secure their parties’ nominations.
The Clinton campaign said in a call with reporters earlier Wednesday that they believed that after voting in states next week, including Florida, Ohio and Illinois, that its delegate lead over Sanders would become “insurmountable”—despite evidence that the Vermont Senator has shown his populism is resounding, particularly amongst blue collar workers in the Rust Belt who are also attracted to Trump.
Clinton’s top message was one of inclusiveness. She noted that she was the first person in the field to call Trump out for his outrageous language and pledged she would continue to do so. “When he was engaging in rhetoric that I found deeply offensive. I said basta,” she said. (Basta is Spanish for enough.) “Others are also joining in making clear that his rhetoric, his demagoguery, his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system. Especially from somebody running for president who couldn't decide whether or not to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke.”
And she drew the sharpest contrast yet with Trump by directly pledging to not deport children or their families. “You don’t make America great by getting rid of everything that made America great,” Clinton said. “ It’s un-American. What [Trump] has promoted isn’t at all in keeping with American values.”
Perhaps most significantly, Clinton made her case for a very nuanced trade policy. Both Sanders and Trump are more stridently anti-trade than Clinton, whose husband authored the North American Free Trade Agreement. And many attribute Clinton’s surprise loss in Michigan this week to voter unhappiness in that economically challenged state over trade and outsourcing.
“She has laid down the foundation for the argument she’ll make in the fall, which is that she voted against [the Central American Free Trade Act] because it didn’t meet her standard, she said that once she had the chance to finally look at and review the final text of the [Trans Pacific Partnership] that it didn’t meet the standard,” John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair, told reporters in the spin room afterwards. “But it’s not enough just to be just be against things. You have to be for the policies that are actually going to work for the American people, to create jobs and to enforce existing trade agreements and I think that’s a place where her experience, due respect to both Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump, is one of being able to be tough, stand up and go toe-to-toe with the Chinese, and that’s the one that the American people need in the Oval Office.”
The ghost of Trump haunted the debate on almost every issue, with both Clinton and Sanders going after Trump’s policies from his denial of climate change to his foreign policy to his treatment of women. Clinton hinted that the race to stop Trump was all the more heightened by the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death on Antonin Scalia. And she reiterated her response to Sanders’ call for her to release the transcripts of speeches she gave to big banks, saying she would only do so when Trump and the Republican field also released their speeches.
The Clinton campaign pushed back on the idea, though, that Clinton was already pivoting to the general election.
“We are absolutely focused on our Democratic opponent and we are fighting for every vote,” said Joel Benenson, Clinton’s pollster. Clinton lost her first presidential bid in 2008 in part because she took the primaries for granted and focused too much on a general election that never came to pass. Still, Benenson noted that running against Sanders was helping Clinton build “the most diverse coalition of voters for a general election.”
Both Clinton and Trump have seen their disapproval ratings rise as the nomination have come within their reach, in part fueled by millions of dollars in negative advertising.
When asked about why only 37 percent of Americans believe she is honest and trustworthy in a recent Washington Post poll, Clinton responded frankly: “I am not a natural politician in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” she said. “I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people's lives, and hope that people see that I'm fighting for them.”