By Carl P Leubsdorf/Washington
In the 36 hours before the latest Democratic debate, the forces of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton fired angry verbal broadsides at one another, essentially accusing one other of dirty tricks after an inadvertent breach in their party’s computer data base.
But when Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley met for Saturday night’s St. Anselm’s College debate, the mood was far less combative. Sanders apologised for his campaign’s mistakes, Clinton accepted his apology and said it was time to move on and O’Malley said their “bickering” exemplified Washington politics.
Even when they criticised one another later on the issues, from regime change abroad to paying for college aid and healthcare at home, the three stuck primarily to substance, avoiding the highly personal, sometimes nasty tone of the most recent Republican debate four days earlier.
There are two main reasons. None of the three uses the kind of incendiary language, proposes off-the-wall ideas and stirs angry emotions as Republican frontrunner Donald Trump does. And the Democratic race still seems more likely to end predictably than the multi-candidate GOP contest.
With several possible Republican standard-bearers, their heated rhetoric represents both fierce and potentially achievable ambitions as well as underlying concerns within the GOP that the emotions Trump unleashed could destroy an excellent chance to regain the White House.
By contrast, it almost seems at times as if Sanders, Clinton’s principal challenger, believes she is probably going to win the Democratic nomination and, while eager to delineate their differences and pull her closer to his leftist views, does not want to undercut her chances of keeping Republicans out of the White House next November.
To be sure, the Vermont senator continues to run well in the first two states being contested next year, trailing Clinton by about 10 points in recent polling for the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and leading by roughly the same margin in polls for the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. Elsewhere and nationally, however, he trails her by substantial margins.
His numbers resemble Barack Obama’s when he contested Clinton eight years ago, and Sanders has created some of the same excitement among younger voters as the then-Illinois senator did. But the 73-year-old self-styled Democratic socialist seems unlikely to match the success the first significant African-American candidate enjoyed subsequently in an increasingly diverse Democratic electorate.
Indeed, Sanders seemed to concede the limits to his opportunities when he regaled New Hampshire supporters recently of his electoral path should he emerge from its primary as a viable candidate.
“If we can win here,” he said in Hollis, N.H., “it will give us a great bounce as we go to Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota.” All of those states but Massachusetts are caucus states, which favor candidates with fervent support among activists. Two are in his home region of New England, and the four only comprise about one-fourth of the states and delegates to be contested in early March, hardly enough to win what almost certainly will be a two-candidate race.
Before that, however, Sanders might be able to take advantage of unique circumstances in both Iowa and New Hampshire that make them more difficult for Clinton than other states.
Iowa has never been a Clinton stronghold, dating from 1992, when Bill Clinton and other Democratic candidates bypassed its caucuses because of former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s candidacy, to 2008, when she lost to Obama because of his innate appeal and the opposition within the state’s liberal-leaning Democratic party to her now-retracted support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. And Sanders has regularly campaigned for Democrats in New Hampshire, which adjoins his home state of Vermont, though she did win its primary in 2008.
Sanders’ decision against escalating the verbal warfare against Clinton as his strategists did before the debate paralleled his refusal in their first debate to make an issue of the controversy over her use of a private email server while Secretary of State and the resulting Justice Department investigation.
Sanders victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire could unsettle the predictable course of the Democratic race, but even then he would face an uphill battle. One can only imagine how loud and long the e-mail and computer breach matters would resonate if they surfaced in the more competitive Republican race. – Tribune News Service
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