Bernie Sanders at a Crossroads: Attack Hillary Clinton or Stay Positive?
By JASON HOROWITZ and YAMICHE ALCINDORJAN. 27, 2016
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at a campaign event on Monday at Grinnell College in Iowa. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times
DES MOINES — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his top advisers will gather here on Wednesday to confront a decision that will have lasting consequences for his presidential campaign and his political image: whether to open a new, tougher line of advertising against his rival Hillary Clinton in the closing days of the race for Iowa.
The meeting comes as both campaigns acknowledge that Mrs. Clinton has pulled slightly ahead in polling for the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Some advisers to Mr. Sanders believe he can win here only by drawing sharper contrasts with her, especially by emphasizing her ties to Wall Street.
The senator has prided himself on running an inspiring, issue-oriented campaign, and he speaks often of how he is not interested in tearing Mrs. Clinton down.
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But the decision he is now grappling with echoes questions voiced by his supporters as Mr. Sanders finds himself within striking distance of Mrs. Clinton in Iowa: Does he have the stomach to directly attack her, and potentially defeat her, or will he be satisfied having injected important issues into the race and preserving his well-earned reputation for eschewing negative campaigning?
The Sanders campaign has made a major purchase of television airtime in Iowa that will begin on Wednesday and continue until the caucuses on Monday. The campaign’s ad makers have prepared two sets of commercials: One continues the feel-good tone of “America,” the campaign’s popular 60-second spot, which shows farmers, children, dancing older couples and families cheering for Mr. Sanders, to the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1960s folk anthem of the same name. The other takes aim at a central vulnerability of Mrs. Clinton, her Wall Street ties, by contrasting Mr. Sanders’s vision for overhauling the financial industry with Mrs. Clinton’s.
“We have options to go in different directions,” said Tad Devine, the Sanders campaign’s Washington-based senior adviser and media consultant, who is traveling to Iowa and will attend the meeting on Wednesday.
Mr. Devine declined to describe the advertising in detail, other than to say that the tougher ad would give “new information more in the wheelhouse of the kind of Wall Street argument.” He was careful not to refer to the ad as negative, instead emphasizing that it highlighted differences between the two candidates.
But it is likely that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which is especially sensitive to criticism of her connections to Wall Street, will view the ad as negative.
The moment for Mr. Sanders is a significant one. If he were to prevail in Iowa, and then go on to win in New Hampshire, where he is favored, he could generate momentum and financial support to present a serious challenge to Mrs. Clinton. A loss in Iowa, however, would most likely diminish his standing, and his campaign could quickly lose steam.
In an exclusive interview on board his campaign plane on Tuesday, Mr. Sanders seemed to be wrestling out loud with the conflict between his desire to preserve his reputation for positive campaigning and his eagerness to defeat Mrs. Clinton. He rejected any suggestion that his candidacy was only symbolic.
“We want to win,” Mr. Sanders said. “We think we have a good chance to win. We think Iowa has a historical role to play in making it clear that the American people want to move this country in a very different direction away from establishment politics and establishment economics. And that’s what we hope will happen.”
In the interview on the plane, a leather-upholstered Gulfstream jet, during which he snacked on cheese wedges and kiwis, Mr. Sanders repeatedly returned to his description of his campaign as positive. Nonetheless, he questioned Mrs. Clinton’s acceptance of more than $600,000 from Goldman Sachs for giving three speeches.
“I am surprised that Hillary Clinton does not understand why so many people have strong concerns about her receiving many, many hundreds of thousands of dollars from Goldman Sachs and from many other financial interests,” Mr. Sanders said. “And I think people don’t understand why she doesn’t see the concerns that Americans have when you receive millions of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street, the most powerful entity in America. You know people can draw their own conclusions, but that is just simply a fact.”
Mr. Sanders’s remark drew quick fire from Clinton campaign headquarters.
“It’s disappointing that Senator Sanders has abandoned his claims of a positive campaign in order to parrot Karl Rove’s attacks,” said a Clinton spokeswoman, Christina Reynolds, referring to the Republican strategist. “The truth is, Wall Street and hedge fund donors are running ads to defeat Hillary Clinton because they know she will hold them accountable.”
Winning in Iowa once seemed a dream for Mr. Sanders, an independent socialist who acted more as a progressive conscience complaining on the shoulder of the Democratic caucus than as a power player in Washington. But his campaign, with its promises of free tuition, universal health care, better race relations, a cleaner environment and a cleaned up campaign finance system, caught the imagination of liberals, especially young ones.
This month, Mr. Sanders suddenly seemed poised for victory here in Iowa, hitting his stride on the trail to the apparent alarm of the Clinton campaign. The usually press-wary Mrs. Clinton suddenly was calling into cable news programs as her daughter questioned Mr. Sanders’s electability, and her surrogates flooded the inboxes of reporters with critiques of his record on gun control.
Overnight tracking surveys this week have steadied her campaign’s nerves, and both sides agree she had a slight lead here as of Tuesday.
Mrs. Clinton has appeared increasingly confident on the Iowa campaign trail this week, barely mentioning Mr. Sanders on Tuesday as she promoted her plans to create jobs and support small businesses and the manufacturing sector. She even referred twice to her “friends” running for the nomination, lumping Mr. Sanders in with former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who is far behind them in Iowa opinion polls.
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers said that she could now devote herself to pushing her agenda and leadership experience.
Within the Sanders campaign, some advisers are eager for the senator to more aggressively exploit Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses, especially the doubts about her trustworthiness. Mr. Devine, a veteran of several presidential campaigns and a longtime adviser to Mr. Sanders, acknowledged some frustrations in the ranks. But he said the campaign has to reflect the tone of its candidate.
“I understand that people would want more confrontation,” Mr. Devine said. “But what is important is that a candidate be comfortable delivering the message.”