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As Sanders closes in on Clinton in Iowa, tougher attacks

January 11, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
Presidential candidates are sharpening their attacks in the weeks before the Iowa contests. Judy Woodruff talks to Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR about ramped up rhetoric on the campaign trail as Sen. Bernie Sanders closes the gap with Hillary Clinton in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With just three weeks to go until the nation’s first early voting contests in Iowa, the polls are narrowing and many of the presidential candidates are sharpening their attacks.

On the Democratic side today, Hillary Clinton stressed the differences within the Democratic field, while Bernie Sanders pushed his core populist message to potential Hawkeye State voters.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: You can run a strong and, I believe, winning campaign without asking Wall Street or the drug companies or millionaires and billionaires for their support. You can go to ordinary people who want real change in this country and you can do it with the support of the middle class of this country.

HILLARY CLINTON, Democractic Presidential Candidate: As you begin to think about the caucus and read about what we’re each saying and talk to your friends and neighbors, I think it’s time for us to have the kind of spirited debate that you deserve us to have. Again, we’re so much better than the Republicans, but we do have differences, and you deserve to know what those differences are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s get into some of those differences now on this Politics Monday.

Reporting from the trial, they’re both in Iowa tonight, Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

And I hope you are both indoors, because I know it’s cold outside.

We are seeing a tightening of the race today, Amy, new poll out today showing Bernie Sanders has caught up to within three points of Hillary Clinton. That’s an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll.

Do we understand why this race is tightening? What’s behind these numbers?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, the Hillary Clinton campaign will tell you, in fact, they have told us since the very beginning of this race, that they expected this was going to be tight all along. Of course, all candidates say that.

But we know why it’s going to be tight. It’s because the same dynamics are in play this year as they were back in 2007 and 2008. Back then, Hillary Clinton did best among those people who traditionally come in caucus, older voters. She did much better with women, where Barack Obama did better with independents and younger people, people who don’t necessarily show up to caucus.

This same dynamic is playing out here in 2016, but Bernie Sanders playing the role of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton playing the role of herself again. And so the question on caucus night will come down to exactly who comes out to vote, which, of course, none of us can know until that night.

But if it’s a big number of people that come out, including people who don’t traditionally show up on a Monday in February, then this race will indeed be very close. If it’s more of the traditional kind of Democratic voters that show up every year, then Hillary Clinton, I think, will have an easier time winning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Tamara, is this tightening changing the way these candidates talk to the voters and what they’re saying?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: I don’t know if it’s the tightening that’s doing it or the limited time left on the calendar, but they are definitely talking in a different way than they have before.

In particular, Hillary Clinton is much more pointed in the way she talks about Bernie Sanders than she has been in the past. And just let me give you a little example, which is an argument they’re now having about guns. This came up back in October, and Hillary Clinton talked about Bernie Sanders’ position on immunity or some level of immunity for gun makers and gun dealers, but she never really called him out by name.

Now she’s saying Bernie Sanders supported this thing when it came up in 2005 in Congress. He’s open to possibly changing his position on it or revisiting it, but he hasn’t changed his position yet. And she is saying, Barack Obama, the president and I, we want to take away this immunity. Bernie Sanders, calling him out by name, doesn’t want to.

That’s very different that she — they’re talking about each other now by name, and they’re talking very specifically about issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, I saw this afternoon her campaign put out a statement about that she wants to put a surcharge on multimillionaires. It’s very clear what she’s trying to — whose attention she’s trying to get.

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

And I was at a Bernie Sanders event today here in Iowa. And what was interesting, to Tamara’s point, you know, Hillary Clinton seems to have sharpened her attacks on Bernie Sanders, whereas Bernie seems to be the sort of subtler, gentler attacker here, still refusing to call her out. He calls her out, but not quite as pointedly.

He continues to mention the fact that he’s never run negative ads in his time as a candidate, suggesting he’s not going to do it this time. He wants to win on the merits of the debate. But there’s no question that, in talking to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, they feel like, no matter what, they have won because they have forced Hillary Clinton to move to their position. They see a more liberal position, and, specifically, of course, on this last issue, on economic inequality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tamara, they must — the Sanders people must think that this sort of, as you put it, soft response is working for them.

TAMARA KEITH: It’s very much Bernie Sanders’ personality. It’s the persona that he’s had as a candidate throughout his political career, and he doesn’t intend to change that.

That said, he is willing to go there on issues. He has been calling on Clinton to support a bill on paid family leave that he’s a co-sponsor of, along with Kirsten Gillibrand and other senators. Clinton says, I support paid family leave just like you do, but she wants to pay for it in a different way.

So I think that — and with that tax proposal, Bernie Sanders’ campaign came out and said that won’t be enough, what Clinton is proposing. So I think they are starting to get chippy on issues themselves, and I think we can expect to see them fighting about taxes in the weeks ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I like that word, chippy.

So, guess who else is…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Guess who else is talking about Bernie Sanders? None other than Donald Trump had something to say about him today. This is part of what Mr. Trump said. Let’s listen.

DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate: I want to run against Bernie.


DONALD TRUMP: Oh, that’s a dream come true. This guy, he would make some president — 90 percent tax, everybody. Does anybody mind paying 90 percent tax? Because you go with Bernie, you’re going to have yourself a nice 90 percent tax. He wants to take it all away from you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, Mr. Trump still has other Republican candidates to worry about, but he is talking about Bernie Sanders.

AMY WALTER: Well, two things going on here. One, Donald Trump always has to be part of whatever the talking points are. So he wanted get himself into what is a debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and make sure nobody forgot about him. He inserts himself.

But the other piece goes to what Bernie Sanders is talking about a lot more now, which is that he is the more electable candidate. For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been, well, Hillary Clinton, she may have a tough time with very liberal voters, but she is a better general election candidate.

Bernie Sanders points to these recent polls that you, Judy, pointed out, specifically from the Marist poll, that shows that Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump handily in New Hampshire, whereas Hillary Clinton is only up by one point. Bernie Sanders is now saying, I’m the more electable candidate.

Now, to be sure, nobody has talked about Bernie Sanders yet. This issue that Donald Trump brought up about 90 percent tax, we will hear a lot about the amount of spending and where it’s coming. From should Bernie Sanders be the nominee, it will be a very tough road for him. Those numbers will change.

That said, I think what Donald Trump is trying to do is to say, whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t let Bernie Sanders put the cart before the horse here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, about 45 seconds left, Tamara.

But fill us in on, where does the Republican race stand right now in Iowa?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, it’s sort of a neck-and-neck situation, depending on which poll you look at, between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz being the senator from Texas.

And Ted Cruz has really consolidated the evangelical vote, and Donald Trump seems to be getting almost all of the rest. And Trump, I think, today even speculated as to why some of those people who are so far behind in the polls don’t just drop out. So, there you have it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re just watching, along with the two of you. We’re glad you’re there as our eyes and ears.

Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, good luck on the trail. Thank you both.

TAMARA KEITH: Thank you.

AMY WALTER: You’re welcome. Thanks.