- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2016

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is intent on ignoring her nagging battle with Bernard Sanders and focusing on the looming general election, but that strategy is about to get much more difficult, with the Vermont senator poised to notch more big primary wins in coming weeks and complicate the former first lady’s efforts to unify the party.

Recent polling shows Mr. Sanders ahead in West Virginia, where Democrats will go to the polls Tuesday in a blue-collar state that, on paper, would seem to be strong Clinton territory. Mrs. Clinton appears to be bracing for a loss in West Virginia and instead will campaign in Kentucky and Virginia this week.

Mr. Sanders also has high hopes for Oregon, which votes May 17. While there’s been little polling in the state, The Associated Press reported last week that more than 84,000 independents have switched affiliation and registered as Democrats in recent months — a likely sign they will vote for Mr. Sanders, who has performed much better among independents than has Mrs. Clinton.

Kentucky Democrats also will vote May 17, and Mr. Sanders has campaigned hard across Appalachia in recent weeks.

His refusal to quit the race — he has vowed to fight all the way to the party convention in July, even though he lags far behind Mrs. Clinton in the delegate count — is keeping Mrs. Clinton from being able to bring her party together in preparation for November.

Republicans, meanwhile, have their candidate, though many conservatives have yet to rally around the presumed nominee, Donald Trump.

But unlike Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump no longer must concern himself with primary foes. He dispatched his last two opponents, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, after a dominating win in the Indiana primary last week.

As Mr. Trump offers a preview of the blistering attacks he’ll unleash against Mrs. Clinton over the next few months, Mrs. Clinton is stuck explaining why she’s been unable to fully fend off Mr. Sanders, despite years of preparation and an unrivaled political operation.

On Sunday, Mrs. Clinton tried to gently nudge Mr. Sanders toward the door, reminding him that she bowed out of the 2008 race against then-Sen. Barack Obama, despite being much closer in the delegate race than Mr. Sanders is today.

“I was much closer to then-Senator Obama. We were neck-and-neck in the popular vote. His lead over me in the pledged delegate numbers was much smaller,” she said in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “[Mr. Sanders] has to make up his own mind, but I was very heartened to hear him say last week that he’s going to work seven days a week to make sure Donald Trump does not become president. And I want to unify the party, and I see a great role and opportunity for him and his supporters to be part of that unified party, to move into not just November to win the election against Donald Trump, but to then govern based on the progressive goals he and I share.”

Mrs. Clinton’s outreach to Sanders supporters has begun in earnest. In recent days, she has stressed how she and Mr. Sanders both are champions of liberal causes, including fighting climate change, expanding health-care access, implementing more aggressive Wall Street reform and other issues.

But Mrs. Clinton now finds herself in the unique position of being the party’s presumptive nominee while also continuing to lose primaries — something that will keep Mr. Sanders in the spotlight despite his near-insurmountable deficit in the delegate count.

With Mr. Trump ready to turn all fire on Mrs. Clinton, Democratic strategists say it’s imperative that the former secretary of state focus on the general election, even though such a strategy marginalizes the popular Mr. Sanders, who has energized young, progressive voters to a degree not seen since 2008.

“It might not be fair, but it is smart politics,” said Clinton supporter Jim Manley, director of the communications practice at QGA Public Affairs and former spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “At this stage of the process, there is no reason for her to spend much time focusing on Senator Sanders. I have no problem with him staying in the race, but the math is what it is — and he can’t win.”

Mr. Sanders may not be able to win the race, but what his campaign can very effectively do is raise questions about Mrs. Clinton and how her own political operation is conducting itself.

Late last week, for example, the Sanders campaign cited a Politico report saying Clinton supporters have reached out to Republican donors who previously backed Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, hoping those moderate GOP donors will embrace Mrs. Clinton instead of Mr. Trump.

By relentlessly focusing on Mrs. Clinton’s ties to big-money donors and Wall Street, the Sanders campaign is feeding the narrative that the former first lady is a creature of the establishment and isn’t the true progressive change-maker she claims to be.

“We are funding our campaign a different way. And every vote we earn, delegate we claim, and state we win from now until the convention is only because people have come together to say they are SICK AND TIRED of the billionaire class buying our candidates and elections,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Saturday in a fundraising email.

Still, the math appears clear — a fact even President Obama pointed out during a press conference last week.

Among pledged delegates, Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Sanders 1,701 to 1,412, according to Associated Press tally. Among superdelegates — party leaders free to support either candidate — she holds a massive advantage, 523 to 39.

It takes 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.

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