Republican presidential candidates are already running hard against Hillary Clinton. Hours before she announced her campaign for president, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul released an online video accusing Clinton of “corruption and cover-up, conflicts of interest,” calling her “the worst of the Washington machine.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush challenged her on her use of a personal email account while she was Secretary of State. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked a crowd, “How can the American people trust her with another position of power?”
In the Democratic primary, things are very different.
Clinton’s three top likely challengers — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb — have notably refused to criticize Clinton’s ethics. All three have avoided mentioning her private email account, her handling of the Benghazi attacks in 2012 or the controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation fundraising, among other popular GOP lines of attack. Aides from several of the emerging campaigns told TIME they don’t plan to do so, either.
“We’re not going down that road,” said Tad Devine, a top advisor for Sanders’ campaign. “We’re not going to run a negative campaign.”
“Jim’s the kind of candidate who’s going to focus on what he wants to talk about and let the media make all the contrast and comparison that are to be made,” said Craig Crawford, spokesman for Webb. “He won’t get in this because he wants to run against somebody.”
Instead, Clinton’s Democratic challengers are taking on her positions on trade, income inequality and foreign policy, arguing either that she’s wrong on the policy or that she’s come to the right position late. When they have been asked about the email or conflicts of interest, they have consistently deflected the question.
Asked in March about Clinton’s use of personal email, O’Malley basically ducked the issue. “I’m not an expert on federal requirements or state requirements, and I’m, frankly, a little sick of the email drama,” O’Malley said. When questioned about Clinton, Webb told a scrum of reporters that the email story is “between her and you all.” Sanders has said repeatedly he wants to run a campaign a debate “over serious issues” and not “political gossip.”
Clinton, for her part, has hardly mentioned her likely challengers for the nomination or she’s been charitable when speaking about them. When Sanders announced his candidacy last week, Clinton amicably tweeted her welcome to the race.
Much of the reticence around staging personal attacks on Clinton comes from her relative strength. She is widely admired in the Democratic Party, while her contenders are relatively unknown at the national level. O’Malley has been in Maryland politics for more than two decades as the state’s governor and a city council member and mayor in Baltimore, while Webb was a one-term Virginia senator. A full 69% of Iowa Democratic voters said they weren’t sure whether they rated Webb favorably or not, a good indication that many first-in-the-nation residents don’t yet know who he is, and 65% said the same of O’Malley, according to a Public Policy Polling survey taken last month.
For O’Malley, Sanders and Webb, a presidential bid would be their introduction to many voters across the country. A first impression as a harsh critic against a widely admired candidate would likely be a poor first impression.
“If you’re a lesser-known candidate and your first introduction to Democrats is a vicious attack on Hillary Clinton, it would backfire completely,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “But if you’re trying to become the lefty in the party or new fresh ideas person it helps you to get there to pick a policy argument with her.”
On that front, her challengers are happy to fight.
Though not yet officially a candidate, O’Malley has been the most vocal critic of Clinton’s policies, responding to each position she’s taken. He has drawn contrasts with Clinton on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama initiative loathed by the Democrats’ progressive wing that Clinton called a “gold standard” when she was Secretary of State.
When Clinton tiptoed carefully around the deal last month, O’Malley sent an email to his supporters with the subject line “Hard choice?” and answered the question in the body: “Nope. To me, opposing bad trade deals like TPP is just common sense,” he wrote.
O’Malley also has painted himself as a more forward thinker on same-sex marriage and immigration, pointing out recently that he came to progressive views on both issues before her. “I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues,” O’Malley said last month, referring to Maryland’s 2012 legislative approval of gay marriage. “Leadership is about making the right decision, and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular.”
His campaign is likely to continue to make Clinton’s credibility on hot-button policy issues a central part of his campaign against her. Hours after Clinton spoke at a roundtable about her support for immigration reform, O’Malley’s campaign reminded reporters that he was in favor of allowing children fleeing violence in Latin America last year to stay in the United States.
Clinton said at the time that the children needed to be sent back in order to “set an example.”
“When most leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties were saying that we should close our border to children fleeing violence in Central America, he defied them and said that we could not send children ‘back to certain death,'” a spokesperson for O’Malley said. “He was criticized for that position, but leadership is about forging public opinion, not following it.”
The other candidates have chimed in on policy occasionally, too. Before he announced his candidacy, Sanders suggested that Clinton isn’t ready to confront the “billionaire class.” Webb said earlier this month after Clinton gave a speech about criminal justice reform that that he had been talking about those issues “for nine years.”
All the same, Clinton’s likely rivals are keeping personal criticism to a minimum, and most policy distinctions have been indirect references. Left unspoken among them is that if the candidates lose to Clinton, any personal vitriol against her will be remembered in the Democratic Party — and possibly replayed in Republican attack ads — and could hurt their chances for public office in the future.
That means, for now, that the sharpest attacks on Clinton will continue to come from the Republican side.
“By the time it gets to Iowa and New Hampshire, the Republicans are going to be jumping over themselves to attack her. For us to get in any way associated is a liability,” said Devine, Sanders’ advisor. “Bernie is going to try to move toward his own strengths at all times.”
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