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Clinton reassesses campaign as debate is next test

Jennifer Epstein
Bloomberg News

The day after suffering a stinging defeat at the hands of New Hampshire primary voters, Hillary Clinton retreated to New York to assess her campaign organization and her message and to prepare for a Thursday debate that now takes on greater importance as she heads into the next round of contests.

From the moment the polls closed in New Hampshire Tuesday night and it was clear that Bernie Sanders was running away with a 20-point winning margin in the Democratic presidential primary, Clinton’s aides rushed out with reassurance to donors and supporters and tried to bat away reports of a staff shakeup to right the campaign.

Some of her key backers on Wednesday also put out word that Clinton was still the long-term bet to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

“(Tuesday night’s) loss doesn’t change my confidence in the secretary becoming the Democratic nominee,” said Robert Wolf, chief executive officer of 32 Advisors, who backed Barack Obama over Clinton in 2008 and now supports the former secretary of state. “I never thought it would be a straight path to the general without any bumps on the road, as it never is.”

Sanders outreach

Sanders, who bested Clinton among women and young voters, turned his attention to cultivating another crucial component of the Democratic coalition that helped Obama twice win the White House. The Vermont senator also was in New York to meet with civil rights activist Al Sharpton. Sharpton tweeted pictures of his sit-down with Sanders at Sylvia’s Restaurant, a Harlem landmark.

The Feb. 27 Democratic primary in South Carolina will be the first nominating contest where blacks make up a significant bloc of the party’s voters. The week before that will be Democratic caucuses in Nevada, where union members and Hispanics will be important to the outcome.

Sharpton plans to meet with Clinton next week and won’t be giving an endorsement before then, the Associated Press reported.

Message challenge

Messaging has been a challenge for Clinton — even with tweaks, her stump speech comes off as a laundry list of policy positions, and the candidate has struggled in interviews to articulate why she’s running for president in just a few sentences.

Efforts in New Hampshire to rally female voters with high-profile figures such as Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright seemed to backfire, as women — and especially younger women — went with Sanders in New Hampshire.

David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign, said it’s natural for a candidate to have a “head-to-toe” re-evaluation of the organization after a setback. But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean an upheaval. “Campaigns have ups and downs, I’ve been through them,” Axelrod said.

Clinton’s next test, and her next chance to show off a refreshed approach, will be her debate with Sanders on Thursday night in Milwaukee. Although it’s crucial for Clinton to maintain confidence among long-time influential Democratic donors and party officials, that support also has made her less appealing to many of the younger or economically disaffected voters attracted by Sanders’ anti-Wall Street, anti-establishment message.

Campaign appeal

Clinton tried to recover some of those threads in her concession speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire, making an appeal to young people, women, minorities and the working poor. She said she agreed with Sanders about the corrosive influence of Wall Street and big money donors.

“I know I have had a blessed life, but I also know what it’s like to stumble and fall,” she said. “And so many people across America know that feeling.”

Any liability in being viewed as part of the establishment also reflects asset for Clinton in actually winning the Democratic nomination. In addition to the delegates collected through caucuses and primaries, Clinton is gathering up the backing of Democratic Party officials and lawmakers who are so-called super delegates to the national convention.

There’s also the impact on races in each state. Her campaign on Wednesday released a list of endorsements from state and local officials in South Carolina.