Hillary Clinton's sprawling network of operatives and opposition researchers were all set to go with an exhaustively investigated playbook to use in the general election — against Jeb Bush. They also had one for Scott Walker. And Marco Rubio.
But Donald Trump?
Clinton's team had bet they wouldn't need to pull that one from the shelf. Now, putting a Trump playbook together is proving vexing. After Trump and Clinton's sweeping triumphs on Super Tuesday, the prospect of a matchup against the impulsive billionaire prone to angry outbursts, outrageous statements and questionable alliances no longer seems too good to be true.
"I say to people, 'Be careful what you wish for,'" said David Brock, a longtime Clinton confidant who helps run a coalition of super PACs focused on getting her elected president. "This is very complicated. There is not a typical playbook you can run."
Trump is willing to tread into territory other politicians will not — and he has been rewarded for it. He is unpredictable. He is tapping into an unprecedented anger in the electorate that Clinton is still figuring out how to navigate. He is impervious to the usual laws of political gravity and has a remarkable ability to fling away attacks.
He has mastered social media like no other candidate, he throws off rivals with deft putdowns that draw in voters the way they once did viewers to his reality TV program, and his knack for showmanship affords him an uncanny ability to change the subject when it suits him.
"He will be able to run away from his incendiary primary positions better than any candidate in history," Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama's former communications director, wrote in an email. "You can see him saying: 'I said that to win the primary; now it's the general election and my goal is to win so that I can make America great again.' He would actually embrace the 'do or say anything to win' caricature that all politicians fear like death."
The goal of the Clinton machine, her advisors say, is to keep voters from getting distracted by his antics. For every disenchanted Democrat or independent whom Trump draws in the Rust Belt, Clinton is aiming to bring on two new suburban female voters appalled by his remarks about women or Latino voters unsettled by his plans for a giant wall to keep out Mexicans.
Armies of researchers are building massive dossiers on Trump's boorish comments, his personal disputes, his company's use of immigrant labor. There are the bankruptcies, the bewildering refusal to repudiate former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and the leaders in Trump's own party who have been lining up to admonish him.
The strategy has already been taking shape on the campaign trail, with Clinton herself questioning Trump's temperament, asking voters to envision him calling the shots in sensitive diplomatic negotiations or in the White House situation room during the operation that took out Osama bin Laden. Mobilization efforts are underway to tap Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim tirades to re-energize the diverse coalition of voters that propelled Obama's victories.
Yet the volume of available material is not quelling anxieties.
"We have been saying he is going to self-destruct since last September, and he hasn't done that despite his best efforts," said Ed Rendell, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee. "He is just a difficult person to run against."
Such uneasiness motivated two longtime Clinton confidants, pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville, to take a deep dive into the zeitgeist fueling Trump's rise. The poll findings they released last week suggested the Republican electorate has unprecedented anger with the opposition party, with nearly 90% feeling its policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being. Distaste for Clinton runs even deeper than it does for Obama, the poll found.
But it also revealed deep anxieties about Trump, with one in five Republican voters saying they would not be able to bring themselves to cast a ballot for him in a general election. The poll also made clear Trump's weaknesses: There was considerable worry even among Republicans about Trump having control of the nation's nuclear weapons, about his attitude toward women and about his perceived egomania.
The Clinton machine is girding to exploit all that.
The attacks will be lobbed at Trump by all manner of surrogates, likely including Bill Clinton, who Trump has already announced can expect to have his own baggage with women and personal finances dragged back into public view.
EMILY's list, the powerful super PAC focused on electing women, is taking aim at all the things Trump has said or done that might repulse women voters. They see many targets.
"It is important to make sure every voter in this country knows who Donald Trump is and what he has said, not just on the campaign trail, but in his life," said Stephanie Schriock, president of the group. "You cannot walk away from two decades of misogyny on top of racist and outrageous language. Those are about character."
Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC that has already amassed a $92-million war chest, assured donors Wednesday that it is prepared for battle. Guy Cecil, the group's co-chairman and chief strategist, wrote in email to them that Trump would have been taken down by now but for the "political malpractice" by GOP super PACS that failed to take him on. "Priorities will not make the same mistake," Cecil wrote.
"His business record, temperament and penchant for sexism and racism are out of step with most Americans and we will be prepared to take that fight to him," Cecil wrote.
Democrats, though, are less concerned about their ability to amass material than finding new ways to deploy it. Trump has proved masterful at changing the narrative when it starts to turn against him, often by shooting off a few tweets.
"We are going to have to step up our game to be competitive with what he has been able to do on social media, which has been impressive," Brock said.
Democrats watched closely as Trump navigated around incidents over the last couple of weeks that might have crippled another candidate. His comments about David Duke didn't keep him from crushing the Super Tuesday election, nor did the spotlight on his use of immigrant labor to build Trump Tower, nor did the release of tapes of his crude interviews with Howard Stern over the years.
Yet Pfeiffer says such issues could be Trump's undoing if Democrats are smart, creative and disciplined in how they use them.
"His goal is to get under your skin," Pfeiffer said. "Stick to your line of attack and do not chase him down every rabbit hole."
Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C.
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