WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s polished performance in the first Democratic debate did more than send a message to her primary rivals. It was a warning to the chaotic Republican field about her likely strength in a general election.
Clinton solidified her shift toward more liberal positions on trade, gun control and immigration, but still stayed largely in step with the battleground state voters she’ll need in November 2016. She also positioned herself as heir to the coalition of women, Hispanics and black voters that propelled Barack Obama to the White House.
“I’m a progressive,” she declared before a television audience of more than 15 million people. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
The Republicans’ raucous first two debates, meanwhile, exposed the party’s deep divisions and the pressure on GOP candidates to appease conservative primary voters. That could again leave the eventual nominee scrambling to recalibrate on issues including immigration and women’s health in order to win over a national electorate that is more racially and ideologically diverse than primary voters.
It’s a familiar conundrum for the party, yet one potentially deepened by the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, candidates whose inflammatory comments seem to only boost their standing in the primary. Candidates who are favored by more traditional Republicans, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, risk being associated with the rhetoric of their rivals — or never find a way to overtake them.
The GOP contenders scrambled on Wednesday to blunt the notion that Clinton has positioned herself as a general election force. Rubio said Clinton was locked in “a race to the left to see who could be the most radically liberal, the most big government.” And Bush cast Clinton as the beneficiary of a Democratic field that sidestepped confrontations over her private email use, a controversy that has dogged her campaign for months.
“I would have taken her to task for that,” Bush told Fox News. “If she wins the nomination and I win the nomination, trust me, this is not going to end.”
Added Trump: “I think the Democrats, frankly, I think they are protecting her.”
Clinton aides insist the former secretary of state isn’t taking the Democratic nomination for granted. While her strong debate performance may have hardened her standing as the party’s front-runner, she still faces tough competition from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
Yet Clinton left no doubt that she’s setting her sights on the GOP field.
“I can take the fight to the Republicans, because we cannot afford a Republican to succeed Barack Obama as president of the United States,” she said. She referenced Republicans a dozen times during the two-hour debate, even putting the party alongside the Iranians and National Rifle Association on a list of enemies she was proud to have made.