- 07 февраля 2016, 05:25
- POLITICO. Top Stories
HENNIKER, N.H. -- Three days before the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton is trying to roll out a new, forward-looking stump speech -- but she keeps getting dragged back by the issues that have dogged her campaign from day one.
At a town hall with students at New England College Saturday afternoon, Clinton was confronted with skeptical questions about two familiar ghosts: her email use at the State Department and her handling of Benghazi.
The questions — one of which was posed by a woman who said she worked for Clinton in the 2008 primary — served as a reminder of the Democratic front-runner’s inability to put to bed the issues she and her supporters simply dismiss as exaggerated and unfair attacks on her character. And their reemergence just as voters go to the polls provides another hiccup for Clinton, who has seen her national margins with Bernie Sanders tighten.
Clinton often says voters don’t care about the email scandal that shadowed her campaign for the first six months. That’s also the argument her top strategist Joel Benenson employed Friday when asked if Clinton planned to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs to help prove there were no strings attached. “I don't think voters are interested,” he said.
Yet there it was on Saturday, again.
“My concern is that your answer that nothing new was found in the Benghazi hearings continues to give me some doubts because what seemed to have come out was that you were pushing the video when you were writing an email to your daughter that said the opposite,” the former Clinton supporter asked. “I want you to answer that, in addition to why you had to destroy so many emails. Everybody knows you can’t write 30,000 emails to your yoga instructor. The other thing is about previous secretaries of state using emails…”
Clinton tried to cut her off, but she pushed through with her question. “Let me finish -- they didn’t have a private server. These are the things that are lingering.”
In her response, Clinton pointed to her 11 hours of testimony in front of the Benghazi Committee and said there was no clear understanding at the time because they were in the fog of war. “This was happening in real time,” she said. “I don’t understand the constant effort by some, particularly in the press, to parse this when the people on the ground...were working as hard as they could to get the best possible understanding of what was going on.”
Clinton moved on before answering the question about deleting her emails -- she had already addressed the issue once before, when it came up at the very beginning of her town hall. The former secretary of state had defended herself saying Secretary Colin Powell and Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s closest aides used private email and “everybody knew that.”
Clinton also leaned on the Democratic establishment that has endorsed her here to defend her character. “They know me, they know who I am, they know what I’m about,” she said of a group of women Senators, including New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, who have endorsed her campaign.
If Clinton seemed inundated by uncomfortable questions, it was at least partly of her campaign’s own making – student supporters of Bernie Sanders were encouraged by the campaign to attend the event. But it also came as Clinton faces a new line of questioning about transparency and trust: at the debate Thursday night, she was asked whether she will release transcripts of paid speeches she gave to firms like Goldman Sachs. The campaign says it is still reviewing that option.
Her paid speeches have become a campaign issue again after Clinton fumbled an answer about why she accepted more than $600,000 from Goldman Sachs for a series of speeches. "That's what they offered," she shrugged at a televised town hall.
Clinton allies admitted they are concerned she has no way of putting the questions to bed. “The problem with releasing the transcripts is she might have said ‘Sen. Jones, or someone, is an idiot,’” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a longtime Clinton supporter. He called Clinton’s responses “belabored.”
He suggested a way out for Clinton: “I take contributions, but people know there are no strings attached,” Rendell said. “That’s the case throughout my career. Period. Don’t belabor it. She sort of gave that answer, but not as tight and concise as I would have given -- she let it drag out.”
Left wing watchdog Jeff Hauser offered his own counsel: “When I’m in office, I will only hire committed reformers to police Wall Street, and after my team imposes the rule of law on Wall Street, I can assure you bankers will never want to listen to me again."
Campaign officials realize the Wall Street ties are a problem that is not going away. The Sanders’ campaign on Saturday blasted out a CNN story documenting the $153 million in speaking fees Hillary and Bill Clinton have raked in since 2001.
But her campaign officials maintain Clinton handled the question well at the Thursday night debate.
“She stood on a stage next to Sen. Sanders and went to the heart of the innuendo he has been making on this stuff is,” Benenson said. “You think she was back on her heels when she said enough is enough if you have something to say, say it to my face? If you think anyone has influenced me, a donor or anyone else, than say it to me? And he didn’t.”
Longtime allies said Clinton's problem is that voters don't buy her answer that she took donations with no strings attached. "Bernie Sanders comes back and says do you think people are giving millions of dollars just because they like to give?" said a longtime Clinton ally. "Nobody believes it. She's a trial lawyer and it stuns me she's not fully prepared."
Rendell said the Wall Street stuff is a problem and “it is not a surprise question. It’s something Bernie and the media will bring it up. It’s going to keep it in a race for a while.”
But he said ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate.”
Clinton herself acknowledged as much at the town hall on Saturday, in a moment of introspection about the difficulties of running as a woman. “I was at a restaurant this morning in Manchester, a woman said to me, you look so much better in person. Well, I take it as a compliment, but most people will never see me in person, so I just got to live with that.”
“I’ve been in this arena, a lot of times people just want to get in your head … part of what I have to do is be my best self, present the way I know how. I am who I am. I can’t do some kind personality transformation. I’m not as tall as my husband or President Obama, so a lot of times you can’t see me in the crowd. But I’m here, waving away. I have to be true to myself.”