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Hillary Clinton's plan for capturing the center

Hillary Clinton's plan for capturing the center
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with parents of young children in Stone Ridge, Va., on Monday. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Even as Hillary Clinton continues to absorb fire from a primary challenger on her left, she has begun executing a methodical general election strategy aimed chiefly at winning over voters in the center.

Her campaign has laid out a road map for controlling crucial battleground states that centers on the anxieties of independents and moderate Republican voters, particularly women, who are alarmed by what they have heard from likely GOP nominee Donald Trump.

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The Clinton campaign sees in those moderates a rich opportunity to build on the coalition of voters who twice propelled Barack Obama into the Oval Office. Polls suggest moderate voters, at least for now, lean against the GOP standard bearer in numbers that outpace those from recent presidential races.

The target voters are found in large numbers in suburban parts of key swing states, areas such as the outskirts of Denver, the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Florida's I-4 corridor. Clinton is aggressively courting them with an approach designed to reduce her risk by limiting direct engagement with her unpredictable Republican rival while calling attention to his shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements and nationalistic appeals that unnerve many voters.

It's an approach Trump might wave away as "low energy" -- and it is that way by design. Faced with an opponent who relishes confrontation and drama, but whom many voters see as unsteady, the Clinton campaign sees an opportunity in playing up the former secretary of State's detailed knowledge of policy, even at the risk of sometimes appearing dull.

That approach can serve both as a defense against Trump's inevitable attacks and as a way to undermine his appeal, the Clinton camp hopes. The goal is to tap into skepticism among voters that Trump has the experience and temperament to deliver on his promises of a better economy and a more secure world.

The Democrats have already begun to stoke those concerns with advertisements highlighting some of Trump's most controversial statements. The assault will intensify next month, as the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA kicks off a $130-million advertising campaign in seven key swing states.

"We are going to make a very clear case," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Priorities USA. "Donald Trump is simply too risky and too dangerous a person to be president of the United States. ... Do you want someone who is likely to fly off the handle and make rash decisions protecting the country?"

National security consistently ranks as a top concern of undecided voters. While many of those voters have misgivings about Clinton's handling of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, or the FBI investigation into her email practices while heading the State Department, they may worry more about arming Trump with nuclear-weapon launch codes.

As the super PAC unloads on Trump, Clinton will be presenting herself as the calm, steady hand with deep experience navigating international crises. She will do so by continuing to respond to major world events with detailed foreign policy addresses that showcase her diplomacy and national security chops, as she did after the terrorist attacks late last year in Paris and San Bernardino.

Priorities USA will also work to undermine Trump's populist economic pitch, making the case that his promises of restoring coal mining and manufacturing jobs are empty and that his business background is dubious.

"This is a person who has built his career on the backs of others," said Barasky. "He has benefited financially while the little guy suffered."

Meantime, to heighten the contrast, Clinton has been laying out in precise detail how she would go about easing the economic, healthcare and national security anxieties that consume the moderate middle.

In chats at voter roundtables, rallies at union halls, speeches at policy centers, Clinton dives so deep into the weeds that at times she seems to be running for the job of technocrat in chief. The eagerness with which she entices voters to her exhaustive buffet of often incremental policy proposals calls to mind the campaigns of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose wonkiness was a key selling point to voters when he was first elected in 1992.

Now the approach is aimed at winning over moderates troubled by all the political baggage the Clintons have accumulated in the years since Bill Clinton first ran.

They are voters like Schatem Boyd, a suburban Virginia mother and business owner who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. She voted for GOP congresswoman Barbara Comstock in the following cycle. She voted for Marco Rubio in this year's Republican primary. She is not particularly enamored with Clinton.

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But Trump?

"To put it mildly, I hate the man," Boyd said in an interview just before a Clinton roundtable event at Loudoun County Mug N' Muffin that she attended in order to grill the candidate on what she could do to bring down the price of providing health insurance to employees.

"I think he's unqualified for the position and his lack of foreign policy expertise terrifies me."

In her response to Boyd's concerns about healthcare costs, Clinton dove into the nuances of Obamacare, private-insurance rate inflation and the merits of expanding subsidies to business owners such as Boyd. She said for the first time that she supports plans to substantially expand Medicare by allowing Americans in their 50s to buy into the government-run healthcare program that currently covers those 65 and older.

"This is not empty promises or demagoguery," said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. "We are focused on showing people she has the practical, achievable, concrete plans that can make the economy work for more people. ... This is what people turned off by Trump are looking to hear."

Clinton has considerable work ahead of her.

In many of the states where she has lost primaries, independents sided with her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In some swing states, Clinton found herself unable to escape the perception among independent voters that she supported international trade deals that pushed good-paying jobs overseas and that she has been too cozy with Wall Street.

The optics for Clinton were not good in the most recent contest, in West Virginia on Tuesday. Coal miners angry with a remark Clinton made recently that seemed cavalier about the decline of their industry came out in force to heckle her. Clinton's comment to CNN in March that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" will haunt her at least through November.

Clinton's campaign had written West Virginia off as unwinnable well before Tuesday's election. But it still saw an opportunity in the mess she had unwittingly created for herself there to send a message to swing voters nationally.

"She is going to places knowing she will be encountering people who have not supported her in the past and may not support her in the future," said Fallon. "The mere act of going shows she is trying to reach out and be that unifying figure that is the antithesis of what Trump represents."

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Twitter: @evanhalper

UPDATES:

8:49 a.m.: This article has been updated to clarify the timing of a remark by a Virginia voter, Schatem Boyd.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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