Bernie Sanders’ claim that Democratic front-runner 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 criticised 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 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 super-delegates 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.
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. Sanders seized on Clinton’s remarks at a rally, 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 political action committee, 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.”
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 ramped 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.
On the Republican side Thursday, front-runner Donald Trump strengthened his team and refocused on New York after tactical failures raised doubts about his campaign operation.
The billionaire’s campaign announced Thursday that veteran operative Paul Manafort would be taking on an expanded campaign role as chances grow of the Republican nomination being decided by a contested party convention.
The move comes after Trump’s loss this week in Wisconsin to rival Ted Cruz, which makes it increasingly unlikely that Trump will be unable to collect the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination before the national Republican convention.
The addition of Manafort to Trump’s team also signals a less prominent role for campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who recently was charged with simple battery over an incident with a female reporter in Florida. Lewandowski says he’s innocent.