Clinton amps up rhetoric on caucus eve

More than 2,600 supporters attend Hilary Clinton's final pre-caucus rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2015. (Max Greenwood/MEDILL)

By Max Greenwood

DES MOINES, Iowa – As presidential hopefuls in both parties amped up their campaign pace over the weekend, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton held steady.

The former secretary of state attended nine “Get Out the Caucus” events in the three days leading up to Monday night’s caucus, while her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, held 14 events.

But what Clinton lacked in quantity, she made up for in intensity. In her final set of pre-caucus rallies on Sunday, she sharpened her rhetoric on key Democratic issues, including economic inequality, climate change and the Affordable Care Act.

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Joined by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and her daughter Chelsea, Clinton delivered a fiery assessment of the GOP candidates, saying recession was more likely under a Republican president, and that the economy fares better under Democrats.

The Republican candidates, she said, “want to rip away the progress that we’ve made. They want to rip back rights that have been extended. They want to go back to trickle down economics that wrecked our economy, and they would do it again,” Clinton said at a packed rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines on Sunday night.

Faced with a challenge from the left in Sanders, Clinton has expanded her pitch to paint herself as a long-time progressive who has fought for middle class Americans and has stood up to Wall Street. Sanders has gained traction in the race as an impassioned Democratic socialist, railing against a rigged economic system and calling for a “political revolution.”

That position has won the Vermont senator support among college students in Iowa’s more liberal eastern half, particularly in the state’s main college towns, Ames and Iowa City. Barack Obama dominated those areas in the 2008 caucuses, and Clinton has worked to  align herself with the president in hopes of tapping the same voter base.

“We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. Nine million Americans lost their jobs, nine million lost their homes and $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out,” Clinton said of Obama’s welcome to the White House. “I don’t think President Obama gets the credit he deserves for making sure we didn’t fall into a great depression.”

While Sanders has primarily campaigned in Iowa’s larger cities, Clinton’s campaign has been more evenly spread between the medium and smaller counties, said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist in Chicago who worked on Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate race and his two presidential campaigns. That breadth of support, Giangreco said, could help Clinton turn out caucus-goers.

“She’s running in all 99 counties, and trying to reach as many Clinton supporters as possible,” Giangreco said. “It’s a much more data-driven campaign, and it’s a very smart strategy, whereas Sanders is banking on a lot of newcomers in just a few places.”

Clinton has long held the lead in Iowa polls, but faces a narrowing gap with Sanders in recent months. A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll released Saturday gave Clinton  a narrow lead of 45 percent to 42 percent, with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley a distant third in single digits.

And while polls show Clinton faring better among more traditional Democratic caucus-goers in the state, much of Sanders’ support comes from a potentially large group of first-time voters.

Sanders strategy has rooted itself in reaching large crowds with  rallies in expansive venues. That strategy, however, doesn’t guarantee the turnout that Sanders may need to win,  Giangreco said. “It’s not about winning people, it’s about winning delegates, and Hillary Clinton seems to understand that,” he said.

Photo at top: More than 2,600 supporters attend Hilary Clinton’s final pre-caucus rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2015. (Max Greenwood/MEDILL)