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Politics

In final days, Clinton is once again trying to make the election all about Trump

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton campaigns at Pitt Community College in Winterville, N.C.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

In the final days of the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has a consistent theme: Donald Trump.

There was a point at which Clinton’s advisors had envisioned a more positive ending, but in the final days of a tight race, the Democratic nominee has backed away from emphasizing a sunny message of inclusiveness. Instead, she has dwelled repeatedly on a vision of a dark future of America under her opponent. 

On Monday, the Democrats launched their version of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad from the 1964 campaign, an apocalyptic warning about the dire consequences of turning over America’s nuclear arsenal to an untested and short-tempered leader — in this case Trump instead of Barry Goldwater.

Tuesday brought the campaign’s first television ad featuring Trump’s graphic boast, caught on an “Access Hollywood” video, about how he would grope women he found attractive and get away with it because of his fame.

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And Thursday, at a rally here, Clinton was introduced by Mae Wiggins, whose application years ago to rent an apartment at a development owned by the Trump family was rejected — an incident that became part of a racial discrimination case against Trump and his father.

Trump, said Clinton, has spent his entire campaign offering “a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters.” She cited the endorsement of Trump earlier this week by the official newsletter of the Ku Klux Klan as proof those signals were being heard "loudly and clearly.”

“They said it’s about preserving white identity, and they placed their faith and hope in him,” she said, noting the endorsement was written under Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again.”

“You have to ask,” she added, “do any of us have a place in Trump’s America?”

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Trump, for his part, has displayed a concerted effort in recent days to remain disciplined, stick to his stump speech and not veer into the sort of perilous improvisations that often have sidetracked his campaign message.

Speaking in a cavernous equestrian center in Jacksonville, Fla., he stayed with a script that combined promises of a muscular economic resurgence with an exaggerated recitation of controversies that have dogged Clinton.

He alleged the FBI was “investigating how Hillary Clinton put the office of secretary of State up for sale in a violation of federal law” — an assertion that goes well beyond anything the bureau is known to be doing.

And in an effort to appeal to voters’ memories of scandals during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, he lamented “here we go again with Clinton — with the impeachment and the problems. She’s likely to be under investigation for many, many years.”

By staying on message, Trump avoided overshadowing his wife, Melania, who made her first solo campaign speech since the Republican convention in July. The previous address drew unwanted attention after key passages turned out to be nearly identical to ones in a speech by Michelle Obama.

In Thursday’s speech, to a small rally in Berwyn, Pa., in the Philadelphia suburbs, Melania Trump said she would devote her energy as first lady to reducing online bullying of children and promoting more civil discourse in American society.

“Our culture has become too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers,” she said.

“We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other.”

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Democrats were quick to say that her plea for civility clashed with her husband’s campaign, which has been punctuated by insults directed at opponents and cries of “Lock her up” aimed at Clinton. 

A similar dissonance came later in the speech as Trump, a Slovenian immigrant, recounted her personal story of success in America. 

“I’m an immigrant, and let me tell you, no one values the freedom and opportunity of America more than me,” she said.

Her husband has argued for sharp new restrictions on legal immigration, a wall against illegal immigration and a ban on immigration from many majority-Muslim countries. He has also warned that many who enter the country will bring an added risk of crime and terrorism.

Those positions are among the ones that Clinton has pointed to all week as she has repeatedly called on supporters to imagine what America would look like under a President Trump.

“I would frankly rather be here talking about nearly anything else,” she said at a rally earlier this week in Florida.

“But I can’t just talk about all the good things we want to do, because people are making up their minds,” Clinton said. “This is a consequential choice, so we’ve got to talk about something that frankly is painful.”

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The steely, if reluctant, focus on her rival’s flaws rather than her strengths reflects difficult truths that have vexed Clinton throughout the race.

She has had limited success in changing negative voter perceptions of her, an effort that was complicated again last week by the FBI’s eleventh-hour resuscitation of the email controversy that had dogged her over the summer.

That difficulty, combined with Trump’s unchallenged ability to dominate public attention, has caused Clinton to accept as inevitable that her best path to victory involves keeping voters focused on her rival.

Wednesday night in Arizona, a state where a surge of Latino voter registration has helped create an unexpectedly tight race, Clinton warned that Trump’s immigration policy would lead to him “literally sending law enforcement officers house to house, school to school, business to business” to break up families.

Her warnings included the possibility that Trump could appoint Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has championed controversial immigration policies, as his secretary of Homeland Security “to oversee the massive deportation force.”

“Sometimes, sometimes the fate of the greatest nations comes down to single moments in time. This is one of those make-or-break moments for the United States,” Clinton said.

Clinton aides deny that her focus on the negative has come in reaction to the FBI’s announcement of the renewed scrutiny of her emails.

And they insist that Clinton will return to making a more affirmative case for her candidacy as election day grows closer.

On Thursday they announced that the campaign’s closing rally Monday night would feature not only Clinton, her husband and daughter, but President Obama and the first lady.

At that rally, in Philadelphia, where she accepted the Democratic nomination in July, Clinton will outline how she intends to keep promoting the “American ideals of progress, inclusion, equality and strength that our founders enshrined in our Constitution,” the campaign said.

The campaign has long believed that Clinton thrives when she can speak directly to the widest possible audience. Those opportunities, though, have been limited to the convention and the three prime-time debates.

In the day-to-day media, she’s more likely to get attention for attacks on Trump than for policy speeches or calls for more “love and kindness” in the national dialogue.

Asked about the dark tone, the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, noted that voters were making up their minds, and “in the closing week we want to reestablish for voters what that choice is.”

“The fact is,” she said, “the choice that Donald Trump represents is pretty dark.”

Memoli reported from Winterville and Bierman from Washington, D.C. Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report from Jacksonville, Fla.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more 2016 campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter

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