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As Democrats Grow Nervous, Clinton Tries To Appeal To Party Leaders

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting in Minneapolis, where she was trying to court all-important party delegates to her side.
Jim Mone
Hillary Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting in Minneapolis, where she was trying to court all-important party delegates to her side.

Hillary Clinton has spent much of the summer fending off questions about her private email account during her time as secretary of state. Bernie Sanders is gaining on her in the polls. And there's a looming possible challenge from sitting Vice President Joe Biden.

That's a far cry from the beginning of this campaign when she was seen as an almost inevitable Democratic nominee.

Now, she's trying to regroup and make the case before the very people who will choose that nominee — not voters, but her base: the party establishment.

"I have been fighting for families and underdogs my entire life, and I'm not going to stop now," Clinton said at the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Minneapolis Friday. "In fact, I'm just getting warmed up."

She vowed that she is "not taking a single primary voter or caucusgoer for granted."

But party leaders are growing concerned that Clinton has not wrested control of the storyline of those emails. It's made many bite their nails, and it's given the other four candidates currently in the race some hope that there's an opening for someone else.

Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, got a boost Saturday night from an Iowa poll showing him gaining on Clinton, just 7 points behind the front-runner.

He underlined — in a not-so-veiled shot at Clinton — that "politics as usual" and "same old, same old" is not going to work in firing up Democratic voters to get out to the polls.

Making a parallel argument to the one conservatives make on the Republican side, Sanders blamed the party, in part, for major losses in the 2014 midterm elections, because liberal base voters didn't have something to vote for.

"We lost because voter turnout was abysmally, embarrassingly low, and millions of working people, young people, and people of color gave up on politics as usual and they stayed home," Sanders said.

He added, "With all due respect — and I do not mean to insult anyone here — that turnout, that enthusiasm will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not work."

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley also took aim at the party's establishment, repeating his criticism of the Democratic debate schedule, which begins in October. He described it as a "rigged process" and "a cynical move to delay and limit our own party debates."

O'Malley, who trails in the polls, wants more debates.

"Four debates, and four debates only, we are told — not asked — before voters in our earliest states make their decision," O'Malley said, making for a rather awkward moment with DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as he left the stage.

Biden did not attend the meeting in Minneapolis. But in a conference call last week, the vice president told DNC members that he has been talking with his family about whether or not to enter the race. He said if he runs, he wants to give the campaign his whole heart and soul.

"And right now, both are pretty well banged up," Biden said. His son Beau, a rising star in the Democratic Party, died of brain cancer in May.

Ahead of her speech, Clinton released a series of memos highlighting her organizational strength in the four early voting states. She campaigned in Iowa last week with Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor. Vilsack was asked if his endorsement of Clinton, while Biden is considering a run, will make for awkward Cabinet meetings.

"I love Joe Biden — just like we all do. He's a wonderful man," Vilsack said. But he said campaigns require difficult choices, and he and his wife are supporting Clinton.

It may already be too late for Biden in the minds of many DNC members, who have backed Clinton by now. Take, for example, Florida committeeman Jon M. Ausman, who said this to Politico in Minneapolis:

"[Biden] doesn't reach out to me for seven f***ing years and then he wants me to help him out? I don't think so. I don't really give a s***. I don't care if he gets into the race or not."

By rolling out early endorsements, Clinton is wise to try to make a show of strength now to ward off a Biden run, says Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service. Elleithee is also the immediate past DNC communications director and worked for Clinton's 2008 campaign.

"[Biden] will not have oxygen in the room if she has locked people down," Elleithee said. "I think he is probably looking at the field and saying, 'OK, at this late date in the process, can I build the organization? Can I raise the money? And can my message break through?' "

Asked about Biden, Clinton said she believes the vice president is facing a tough decision, and she wants to give him the space and time to make it. She told reporters in Minneapolis that she's also learned some lessons from her primary loss to President Obama in 2008.

"I got a lot of votes," she said, "but I didn't — I didn't get enough delegates. And, so, I think it's understandable that my focus is going to be on delegates as well as votes this time."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.