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Hillary Clinton Is About To Get Two Key Chances To Quiet Her Skeptics

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/10/2015 Amanda Terkel
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WASHINGTON -- The next two weeks will provide Hillary Clinton with two of her best chances yet to distinguish herself from her presidential primary opponents and put to rest lingering concern over the private email server she used while secretary of state.

The first chance comes Tuesday, when five Democratic candidates face off in Las Vegas for their first debate.

While the primary has been a polite affair so far, especially  compared to the Republican race, the  debate will be the first chance for voters to evaluate the candidates side by side. The Clinton campaign is focused on highlighting her progressive positions while also showing that she is the best-equipped to turn campaign proposals into governing realities.

The second test comes the following week, when Clinton will testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The appearance has long been viewed as an opportunity for her to lay out her side of the story and counter Republican lawmakers who risk the very real chance of overplaying their hand and appearing as if they're on a partisan hunt.  

Clinton received some assistance  with that last week, when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gloated that the supposedly nonpartisan committee has helped weaken her poll numbers. His comments made it easier for Democrats to argue that Republicans are using the taxpayer-funded committee to go after Clinton rather than get to the bottom of the 2012 terrorist attack. 

The two events together present a major inflection point for Clinton's presidential ambitions: a chance to shore up support on the progressive end of the political spectrum while beating back opposition on the conservative end.

The campaign has taken a number of steps to facilitate the first half of that mission.

On Wednesday, Clinton revealed her much-awaited position on President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, announcing that she was against the massive trade deal. Progressive groups have long opposed the TPP, as do Clinton's two main Democratic primary rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. 

Clinton released her Wall Street reform plan the following day , undercutting  critics who worry that she's too close to the financial industry and rebuking  Obama's weak enforcement record against financial misconduct.

She's also split with Obama in recent weeks by calling for the elimination of the Affordable Care Act's "Cadillac tax," opposing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and pushing for certain administrative actions on gun control that Obama has not yet taken.

The announcements' timing appeared designed to preempt criticism from her more progressive opponents prior to Tuesday's debate.

But advisers to Clinton reject that, noting that she came out with a progressive immigration plan, for example, much earlier in the campaign. And the former secretary of state said she delayed taking a stance on TPP because she wanted to hear final details before making a decision. 

"From her time at the Children's Defense Fund through running for President today, Hillary Clinton has spent her career fighting for the progressive values she knows will help improve lives and make our country stronger," campaign spokeswoman Christina Reynolds said. "Throughout this campaign, starting with her first policy speech on criminal justice reform and through policies like immigration, voting rights, holding Wall Street accountable and gun violence prevention, Hillary has been focused on the issues and progressive causes she would fight for as President."

The ultimate goal is not just to play defense, but also to establish Clinton's superior credentials on a number of issues. Advisers have reportedly been preparing her to question how Sanders is planning to pay for some of his proposals, such as free public college tuition. Her gun control plan also sets up a telling contrast: Clinton goes further than Sanders by calling for an end to the legal immunity that firearms manufacturers and dealers currently enjoy.

"This is going to be millions of people's first time actually hearing her policies for how to move America forward," Reynolds added.

If the debate presents a critical moment for Clinton, it could be a veritable launching pad for Sanders. The Vermont senator has drawn tremendous crowds at his campaign rallies. And in a few short months, he has built a grassroots fundraising apparatus that has allowed him to nearly keep pace with the Clinton campaign and its decades of connections with big donors. But Sanders' team feels he has barely been introduced to a wider audience.

"I don’t think it has begun to happen for most of America," said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sanders. "I know he has gotten a lot of attention, and certainly we are pleased with where we are in Iowa and New Hampshire. But I think in terms of the country getting to know him, we have only begun to scratch the surface."

While a highly watched forum on CNN will surely provide that introduction, it's also a stage the size of which Sanders has yet to experience. To prepare, Devine said Sanders has studied briefing materials and held talks with policy advisers. The campaign won't have a "full-blown mock debate," but will sit around a table and ask the senator potential questions, "making sure he is familiar with his own record and his opponent's records."

The hope is to get Sanders to open up more about his life story. But "Bernie being Bernie, he may just decide, 'I'm not here to talk about my immigrant father who couldn’t speak English,'" Devine said.

One thing Sanders is unlikely to do is launch negative attacks at his opponents.

Devine said the campaign's biggest fear is "that the debate will move away from substance and into political attacks. That’s not his forte. He is not a guy who does that politics at all. So I don’t think we want that."

"You're looking at a candidate who has run in many, many elections who has never run a negative political ad in my life and hopes never to have to run one," Sanders told reporters at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual policy conference Wednesday. "And you're looking at a candidate who does not go about attacking people personally. I just don't do that."

O'Malley, however, is a different case. The former Maryland governor has been less shy about going after Clinton in particular, hitting her for past positions and for being slow to take a stance on current issues. 

"The distinctions I have with the two current front-runners in our party is this: I have 15 years of executive experience, actually getting things done as a big-city mayor and as a governor -- pulling people together, forging a new consensus, very oftentimes in advance of the polling or the focus groups," O'Malley said at the CHCI event Wednesday. "Leadership is not putting a finger into the wind and waiting for the polls to tell you it's safe to do so. Leadership is forging a new consensus based on the principles we share as a people that will actually give our children a more just and more prosperous future."

O'Malley hopes the debate will be a breakout moment for him in what has largely been a two-way contest thus far.

"Right now in our party, the only two candidates people have heard of, really, is the inevitable front-runner and the senator from Vermont," he said. "But once the debates happen, people will be able to listen to all of the candidates."

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb will also be onstage Tuesday. The debate, hosted by CNN, is the first of six in the Democratic primary.

Elise Foley contributed reporting.

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