DES MOINES, Iowa—Bernie Sanders’ claim that Hillary Clinton isn’t qualified to be president landed with a boom this week. The blow was far from the first — and won’t likely be the last — from the candidate who pledged to stay away from negative campaigning.
The Vermont senator kicked off his insurgent presidential bid last year with a pledge to focus on issues over character attacks and boasted often that he’s never run a negative ad. But for months Sanders has sharply criticized Clinton, slamming her for supporting the war in Iraq, for her record on trade and most aggressively for her lucrative paid speeches before Wall Street bankers.
While his tone has shifted as the race has grown more combative on both sides, Sanders’ campaign officials argue that he has kept his promise. They say he has focused his fire on policy and is simply fighting back against Clinton’s own attacks.
“Bernie Sanders decided yesterday that he wasn’t going to go into the New York primary and be run over by their campaign,” said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign. “He responded in kind.”
The conflict between the two flared this week ahead of the crucial April 19 New York primary. On Wednesday, Clinton questioned Sanders’ truthfulness and policy know-how, though she avoided direct questions about whether he was qualified to be president.
Still, Sanders seized on the remarks at a rally that night, telling a crowd of thousands that Clinton has been saying that he’s “not qualified to be president.”
“I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds,” he said.
Clinton aides and supporters pushed back aggressively. A fundraising email sent out shortly after from Christina Reynolds, the Clinton campaign’s deputy communications director, said Sanders had “crossed a line,” calling it a “ridiculous and irresponsible attack.”
The increased scrapping comes as the surprisingly competitive Democratic race heads into the high-stakes final contests. Sanders has been on a winning streak, but still must take 68 percent of the remaining delegates and uncommitted superdelegates to win the Democratic nomination. That would require blow-out victories in the upcoming primaries.
Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist who advised Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said Sanders is unlikely to win the nomination unless he can win “big states by big margins” — beginning with New York, the state Clinton represented in the Senate.
“For Hillary Clinton, this is about bragging rights. For Bernie Sanders, this is about survival,” he said.
McMahon added that Sanders’ comments on Clinton’s qualifications was an “authentic reaction” to the situation, but “it was not accurate.”
“Trying to prosecute an argument that she’s not qualified to be president is ridiculous and it’s a losing argument,” he said.
Clinton’s campaign has grown increasingly frustrated with Sanders’ attacks, particularly around campaign finance and Wall Street, which they say amount to character criticisms. They have amped up their own rhetoric in recent days, hitting him for being weak on gun control and trying to pit him against the families of children murdered in the Sandy Hook school shootings.
Sanders supporters argue that he has stuck to the issues.
“I think that Sen. Sanders has been very consistent not just throughout the campaign, but throughout the years in pointing out the utter destructiveness of the campaign finance system. I think that what he’s done in the last few days is exactly in line with that,” said Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, who has endorsed Sanders.
Sanders volunteer Brenda Brink, from Huxley, Iowa, said Sanders was doing what he needed to do.
“If you want to call it negative, I call it politics,” said Brink, 58. “He’s not going to lay down and let it pass and no one really wants him to. It’s a fight.”
Sanders has rejected some lines of attack against Clinton. During a Democratic debate in October, Sanders diffused the issue of Clinton’s private email server during her time as secretary of state, saying “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
So far, he has not featured her or referenced her name in advertisements, though some have alluded to her, such as an ad in Illinois that sought to tie Clinton to embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“He’s going to talk about differences he has with her on issues. We have not made personal attacks part of this,” Devine said. “There are important issue differences.”
With over a week to go before the New York primary, the tension is only expected to get worse.
New York Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda, whose district is located in the Bronx, is supporting Sanders. He said he thinks Sanders is responding in kind to Clinton’s rhetoric, but he wished the entire race would tone down.
“I don’t think this type of campaigning from either side is helpful to the process,” Sepúlveda said.
Sanders softened his line of argument in an interview Thursday evening on “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.”
“What I said was in response to what she has been saying. Washington Post headline, quote ‘Clinton Questions Whether Sanders is Qualified to be President.’ I thought it was appropriate to respond.”
“Do you believe Secretary Clinton is unqualified to be president,” he was asked.
“Well, does Secretary Clinton believe that I am unqualified to be president,” Sanders responded.
He did say that Clinton “has years of experience. She is extremely intelligent.”
Sanders said that If Clinton is the party’s nominee, “I will certainly support her.”
He also seemed to give her wiggle room on the issue of Iraq.
“Of course she doesn’t bear responsibility” for Iraq war victims,” Sanders said. “She voted for the war in Iraq. That was a very bad vote in my view. Do I hold her accountable? No.”
Sanders wife Jane, appearing Thursday on MSNBC, said of her husband: “Bernie has moved on.”
Lucey reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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