As Donald Trump’s resilience defies his erratic style, thin policy plans and incendiary pronouncements, Hillary Clinton is confronting the reality that coasting to election day is no longer a viable strategy.
Clinton has abruptly switched gears in her effort to lure the vast numbers of suburban swing voters and moderate Republicans who are still undecided. The carefully scripted candidate cautiously grinding it out has given way to a more aggressive street fighter, one who is eager to force Republican voters to face their party’s uneasiness with its own nominee.
“What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks America's generals and praised Russia's president?” Clinton said Thursday morning, when she greeted reporters about to board her campaign plane with the type of impromptu news conference she had avoided all summer. It was her third in three days.
The new energy is being infused into Clinton’s campaign alongside an effort with the White House to exploit the uneasiness that swing voters have with Trump’s contradictions and shoot-from-the-hip approach. As the clock runs down, Democrats are working to sow enough doubt to overshadow the concerns many of those same voters have about Clinton’s trustworthiness and motivations.
Thursday’s spontaneous tarmac news conference followed a night when adhering to the campaign’s carefully mapped playbook cost Clinton. She had gone to NBC News’ military issues town hall in New York better prepared than Trump and armed with warnings from top GOP national security players that a Trump presidency would destabilize America’s national defense.
But she got tangled in questions about her email troubles, and then had to watch as Trump, who followed her on stage, was largely unchallenged by moderator Matt Lauer. The GOP nominee misrepresented his earlier positions on the Iraq war, disparaged American generals and spoke fondly of Putin with little pushback.
The event was yet another signal to Clinton’s campaign that she needs to be more present on the trail, driving the narrative instead of leaving her engagement to the occasional big-ticket event. The forum came only days after a CNN poll showed Trump had taken the lead nationally, a conclusion that is at odds with other surveys but worries Democrats nonetheless.
Instead of moving on to the next scheduled event, as Clinton often does, she paused Thursday to make the point that Trump’s comments at the forum were offensive not only to Democrats, but also Republicans.
“Every Republican holding or seeking office in this country should be asked if they agree with Donald Trump,” she said. “Republicans are in a terrible dilemma of trying to support a totally unqualified nominee.”
By late morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan found himself bristling when asked about Trump’s fawning description of Putin.
"I'm not going to sit up here and do the tit-for-tat on what Donald said last night or the night before in Hillary versus Donald. That is not my job," Ryan told reporters. But he then broke with Trump in warning, “Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests.”
Across town, Vice President Joe Biden amplified Clinton’s message to Republicans at his own event. "This is not your father's Republican Party," he said, reviving a line that had been central to his stump speech in 2012, when he and President Obama sought a second term.
Four years ago, the line was delivered as part of an effort to link Republican nominee Mitt Romney to the tea party movement that had come to dominate the congressional Republican majority. This time, it served instead to link the GOP to its unconventional and unpredictable nominee.
"They’ve reverted to attitudes that were jettisoned in the '40s by their party," Biden said in a speech to the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank.
And across the globe in Laos, Obama wrapped up his final diplomatic trip to Asia by asking Americans to ponder how such trips might go if Trump were leading them with his “outright wacky ideas.”
“I can tell you from the interactions I’ve had over the last eight or nine days with foreign leaders that this is serious business,” Obama said. “You actually have to know what you’re talking about.… When you speak, it should actually reflect thought-out policy that you can implement.”
Obama’s remarks came hours after Trump suggested at the NBC forum that the U.S. should have taken oil from Iraq following the invasion there — a move that would have been illegal under international law — and that under Obama, U.S. generals have been “reduced to rubble.”
Trump fired back at Democrats during a rally in Cleveland, where he aimed to lure the same swing voters Clinton is targeting by unveiling a $20-billion plan for school vouchers. But he too veered back to the Wednesday forum and its aftermath. He began the education address by spending several minutes lambasting Clinton’s foreign policy experience and renewing his false claim that he opposed the war in Iraq before it began.
“The media is so terribly dishonest,” Trump said, criticizing reporters who called him out for repeating the claim that he opposed the war during the town hall.
Trump insisted that he would have voted against the war if he had not been a private citizen and blamed Clinton’s policies for unleashing Islamic State.
Trump again called Clinton, who voted for the war as a senator, “trigger-happy," and he called Iraq “one of the biggest differences in this race.”
Meanwhile, the effort by Democrats extended across the country to California, where Trump running mate Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, declaring Trump a modern-day Reagan. But before Pence spoke, the Democratic Party taunted him with comments from Reagan’s children.
It released a video of news footage of various Reagan children saying a Trump presidency would be a calamity. “My father would be appalled,” Michael Reagan, the former conservative talk radio host, said of Trump in one clip.
Clinton’s push to lure voters who might typically vote Republican was set to continue Friday as she meets in New York with national security experts, including some high-profile advisors normally aligned with the GOP. Among those who planned to attend were Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and Richard Fontaine, who was a foreign policy advisor to Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential run.
After announcing the meeting, Clinton mocked Trump’s secret plan to defeat Islamic State.
“He says his plan is still a secret, but the truth is, he simply doesn't have one,” she said.
Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Michael A. Memoli in Washington, Seema Mehta in Simi Valley and Christi Parsons in Vientiane, Laos, contributed to this report.
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