- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Hours after losing the Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton fired a barrage of charges at Sen. Bernard Sanders on Wednesday, questioning his commitment to the Democratic Party and accusing him of enabling the gun industry to arm mass killers, as she seeks to regain liberals’ backing.

Analysts said it was a dangerous move for Mrs. Clinton, who will need those progressives’ support if she is to win the White House and who risks running the same kind of personal attack campaign she has chided Republicans for waging.

Even Clinton supporters urged the former secretary of state to tread carefully in her assault on Mr. Sanders, who has won six out of the past seven Democratic primaries and caucuses and is pulling ahead in national polls, keeping alive the possibility that the nomination could slip through Mrs. Clinton’s fingers just as it did in 2008.

While the former secretary of state clearly is fed up with Mr. Sanders and desperately wants to transition to a general election campaign, analysts say her new strategy is inherently risky and could backfire by strengthening the resolve of Mr. Sanders and his supporters.

“If she steps over the line in discrediting him, that could turn off some of his supporters, some of whom are already skeptical of her,” said Matthew Dallek, an assistant professor of political management at George Washington University. “It’s a delicate balancing act to the extent [Mr. Sanders] wins and he is raising money and he is competitive, and to the extent there are more attacks on him from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I think it stiffens the spine of many of his supporters.”

Indeed, some of those Sanders supporters already have made up their minds that they won’t back Mrs. Clinton. A McClatchy/Marist poll released Wednesday found that just 69 percent of Sanders backers said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton in a general election.

The same survey found that Mr. Sanders now leads Mrs. Clinton nationally, 49 percent to 47 percent.

In the wake of those troubling figures, and her 13-point loss in the Wisconsin primary, Mrs. Clinton has undertaken a clear shift in strategy.

The attacks commenced almost immediately after the Wisconsin results were announced. Mrs. Clinton’s first broadside was in an interview with Politico, in which she accused Mr. Sanders of not being a true Democrat.

“I can’t answer that,” the former first lady said when asked if Mr. Sanders is a true member of her party. “He’s a relatively new Democrat and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one, so I don’t know quite how to characterize him.”

Mr. Sanders was an independent until he announced his candidacy for the White House.

Mrs. Clinton followed up by going after the core of Mr. Sanders’ campaign — his proposals to break up big banks and rein in Wall Street. She referenced a recent New York Daily News interview in which Mr. Sanders was unable to give specifics on how he would break up banks as president.

“I look at it this way: The core of his campaign has been ‘break up the banks,’ and it didn’t seem in reading his answers that he understood exactly how that would work under Dodd-Frank,” Mrs. Clinton said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Exactly who would be responsible, what the criteria were, and that means you can’t really help people if you don’t know how to do what you are campaigning on saying you want to do.”

The attacks culminated with a Wednesday afternoon conference call in which Clinton surrogates blasted Mr. Sanders for his votes to shield gun manufacturers from liability. Mr. Sanders has stood by that position despite near-constant fire from the Clinton campaign.

Mr. Sanders “must support ending this immunity and allowing families, like those tragically affected by the Sandy Hook massacre, to have their day in court,” the Clinton campaign said in a statement.

Clinton supporters say they are comfortable with increased attacks on Mr. Sanders, but they are also cautioning Mrs. Clinton to proceed carefully.

“I have no problem with the Clinton campaign ratcheting up the attacks on Sanders, as long as they don’t go too far and personalize it, because in the end they are going to need his supporters,” said Clinton backer Jim Manley, director of communications practice at QGA Public Affairs and former spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “But if Sen. Sanders and his supporters don’t like getting criticized, well, that’s too damn bad. Campaigns are about a clash of ideas, and suggesting that he doesn’t have the background or experience necessary is well within the boundaries of a political debate.”

Mr. Sanders was having none of it, implying Mrs. Clinton’s vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq war required much more personal atonement.

“Maybe Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq,” he told CBS News in a Wednesday interview.

Later, at a rally in Philadelphia, he said Mrs. Clinton was “unqualified” to be president — one of his harshest attacks on her yet — and included her Iraq vote in the litany of reasons he gave the cheering crowd.

“I don’t believe you are ‘qualified’ if you voted for the disastrous war in Iraq,” the Vermont socialist said.

Mr. Sanders’ team is using the attacks to motivate his supporters.

“We have to get ready for the Clinton campaign’s attacks,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a fundraising email. “We’re on the path to the nomination, and now they’re going to try to block it with super PACs, billionaires and everything else they’ve got.”

After the Wisconsin contest, Mrs. Clinton still leads Mr. Sanders in the delegate count, 1,748 to 1,058, according to an Associated Press tally.

Among pledged delegates, she leads 1,279 to 1,027. She also has the support of 469 superdelegates, compared with 31 for Mr. Sanders.

— Staff Writer Victor Morton contributed to this report

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