Hillary Clinton accuses Bernie Sanders of engaging in the most negative campaign in the history of Democratic presidential nomination contests, breaking his decades-long pledge to run only positive campaigns.
Clinton said Sanders ran a negative TV ad against her. But the 30-second spot never mentions her name.
She claims Sanders is attacking her when he brags that he doesn’t benefit from a super political action committee. He does point out that she gets money from PACs but is careful not to say the money influenced her.
She accused him of being sexist when a top aide said Sanders would consider her to be his vice president. But that’s a common comment about all candidates. Sanders said it was a joke and cited his strong pro-woman voting record.
Democratic voters in early nominating states, including those who support Clinton, say they don’t see Sanders’ campaigning as anywhere near how Clinton labels it. She and Sanders are campaigning in similar ways, they say, and both are far, far less critical than the Republican candidates for president.
“The Democrats feel like a love fest at this point,” said Craig Plummer, 45, an educational consultant from Brookline, New Hampshire, who supports Clinton and attended a recent event for the candidate at Nashua Community College.
If Sanders is “pointing out differences between the candidates and that’s negative, I'll take it,” he said. “It’s fair to point out differences between them.”
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Political observers say Clinton is embracing a well-used tactic – playing the victim – in an attempt to attract voters as polls tighten. Clinton barely won the Iowa caucuses last week and is polling behind Sanders for the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.
Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, said Clinton was accusing Sanders of being inconsistent by not following through with his pledge.
This is a pretty common campaign tactic – to say he’s saying one thing but doing another, this guy is not who he said he was.
Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan
For months, it’s been Clinton aides making the most of such accusations.
Spokesman Brian Fallon, for example, often mentions how Sanders said Clinton, like Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, had foreign policy experience but that experience did not equal judgment. Campaign manager Robby Mook said, “We were particularly surprised. . . . to see him break that pledge.”
He’s probably running the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential candidate . . . in a presidential primary season. . . . It seems like once you’re not with him, you become a focal point of his attacks.
Clinton senior campaign strategist Joel Benenson
That changed last week at their latest debate, when Clinton herself accused Sanders of launching an “artful smear” of her by innuendo.
“I really want to, once again, call out the Sanders campaign, which claims they like to run a positive campaign,” Clinton added Sunday on ABC. “But they have been quite artful in raising questions and trying to cast doubts about my record.”
Yet even Clinton supporters scratch their heads at the accusations of dirty campaigning.
“There’s not really a substantial difference between the two,” said William Vaughn, 55, who works with people who have disabilities outside of Ames, Iowa, where he recently attended an event in support of Clinton. “It’s getting near the finish line, and everybody is elbowing as much as they can to make some room.”
Wayne Lesperance, director of the New England College Polling Institute, said the tactic had worked when Clinton fought back at an 11-hour grilling on Capitol Hill about the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, making Republicans look like “bullies.” But, he said, it doesn’t appear to be working now. “It’s a bad strategy,” he said. “It’s like she’s stomping her foot. It doesn’t play well.”
Sanders’ campaign dismisses the accusations, calling them an attempt to distract from Clinton’s own weaknesses and softer-than-expected poll numbers.
“I have tried my best to run a positive issue-oriented campaign never making personal attacks against Hillary Clinton,” Sanders told ABC News. “Talk about me running a negative campaign, that’s just absurd.”
If anything, the two have been largely cordial personally, and equally aggressive in pointing out differences on issues and approach.
Sanders does frequently bring up his disapproval of Clinton’s campaign benefiting from a super PAC and accepting donations and speaking fees from Wall Street.
“There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system,” he said. “It is undermining American democracy.”
Clinton said Sanders was attacking her on money indirectly. “Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth,” she said. “Enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly.”
He hasn’t been negative: He’s stuck to positions and policy. It’s not like he’s brought up the emails; he’s said that’s not an issue.
Trish Campbell, a pediatrician from Keene, N.H., who is leaning toward supporting Sanders
For her part, Clinton has accused Sanders of voting with the National Rifle Association numerous times, including for a bill to shield gun makers from lawsuits. More recently, she criticized him for wanting to replace the Affordable Care Act with a government-run plan that some have estimated would cost $15 trillion.
Late Monday, Sanders accused Clinton’s campaign of attacking on a variety of issues, from health care to gun control.
The campaign statement came after Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, said Sanders was being hypocritical for criticizing her for accepting money from Wall Street when the senator benefited from the same money raised by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money and then helps Democratic Senate candidates.
“It is very disturbing that, as the Clinton campaign struggles through Iowa and New Hampshire, they have become increasingly negative and dishonest,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.
Kay Graber, 79, of Mount Vernon, Iowa, said at a recent event that she supported Clinton, but she acknowledged that Clinton has been very aggressive against Sanders on gun control.
“It’s going to be awful hard not to be negative,” she said. “I’d be surprised if she isn’t negative. . . . After all, we’re this far in the campaign and they are going to have to point out differences.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this article.