Page: Can Hillary rally the Obama coalition?

Clarence Page

His campaign is a long shot, but I’m happy to see Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders putting forth a good impersonation of a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Like a near-sighted javelin thrower, the self-described democratic socialist may not score many points but he’ll keep the crowd alert.

The former first lady, senator and secretary of state needs someone to keep her alert. Her avoidance of reporters and any other unscripted public moments sometimes make her appear to be asleep at the wheel.

Her slow reaction to widespread suspicions about her private, unsecured email server, for example, seemed odd compared to her husband’s rapid-response campaign team in 1992. And why encourage an image of aloofness and entitlement at a time when voters are expecting candor and transparency?

One wonders, is she relying on her potential Republican opponents, whose numbers seem to grow by the day, to trip over themselves so much that she can quietly waltz her way to her party’s nomination? That’s not a totally bad bet, considering how the mere mention of Hillary Clinton’s name was driving right-wingers bananas years before anyone had reason to mention “Obama derangement disorder.”

But as much as her campaign seems to be leaning on celebrity style more than substance, her initial speeches offer hints of a long-term goal: She aims to rally the same coalition of voters who twice elected President Barack Obama.

At Texas Southern University in Houston, Clinton issued a major appeal for every American to be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 unless they choose not to be.

She called for a nationwide standard of at least 20 days of early voting. She called on Congress to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which a 2013 Supreme Court ruling weakened. She also attacked restrictive voter identification card laws imposed by Republican lawmakers in some states for discouraging lawful voters from voting.

Republican governors from two of those states, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Texas’ Rick Perry, sharply denied her accusation, even though Perry did sign a controversial requirement that Texans show photo identification before voting.

But those responses were politely restrained compared to conservative critics who accused Clinton of “race-baiting” and “playing the race card.”

“She needs black voter turnout in 2016 in order to win,” said editor Katie Pavlich on anchor Gregg Jarrett’s Fox News program. “And the way that she’s going to do that is by perpetuating this bogus, race-baiting narrative that somehow voter ID laws disenfranchise minority voters.”

A big looming question: How much have black voters gotten over hard feelings left over from Clinton’s long-running primary battle against Obama in 2008?

Another question: Are Obama’s core supporters so disenchanted over what he was unable to accomplish against strong Republican opposition that they won’t bother to vote this time?

That’s always possible.

But here, too, Clinton has hope. There’s always the chance her political adversaries overreact harshly enough to remind her base that things always could be worse.

Clarence Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist.