How Hillary Clinton Will Try to Fend Off Her Rivals (Including the One Who Isn’t There)

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Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden speak at the end of the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2, 2013. The event honors "women leaders from around the world who are the unsung heroines to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity, and protect human rights," according to the group's website.
I'm afraid the race is over, JoePhoto: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is aiming to reignite her wounded campaign tonight at the first Democratic debate by re-reintroducing herself to voters. With Clinton, the question, of course, is which version she will choose to introduce: Will it be the Hillary with heart? Humor? Fire? Or wonkiness? More challenging than personal branding, however, will be how she chooses to engage her nearest rivals onstage (Bernie Sanders) and off (Joe Biden). Inside the Clinton campaign, this has been the debate among her tight circle of advisers.

Each challenger presents different dangers. With Sanders, Clinton could certainly bury him as an unelectable socialist fringe candidate, but by doing so, she risks alienating his legion of grassroots supporters that have been packing his rallies. According to one senior Democrat wired into Hillaryworld, the campaign’s vice-chair Huma Abedin has been counseling Clinton not to engage Sanders directly. “The campaign is afraid that Bernie supporters will hate them,” the source said. Which is why tonight Clinton will most likely play the grownup that embraces Sanders’s partisan passions while pointing out the difficulty of paying for all his proposed spending. She’s been practicing in mock debate sessions with her longtime lawyer Bob Barnett playing Sanders. 

How Clinton handles Biden is far trickier, and perhaps for her candidacy, more consequential. Given that the vice-president’s possible entry into the race has been paved by Clinton’s numerous stumbles, her task tonight is to convince confused Democrats that she’s “got this,” as the current president would say. The past few days has seen a turn against Biden as reporters, pundits, and even Democrats are calling for him to make up his mind. Clinton has the chance to further close the door on a Biden run. To accomplish this, she’ll need to project the confidence and authority of a front-runner that signals to the party there truly is no room for his late entry. If she appears defensive or evasive on any number of issues — the foundation and email scandals or her recent flipflop on the TPP trade deal — this will only reenergize the Draft Biden drumbeat. A longtime Clinton adviser told me she’ll look to demonstrate a supreme command of policy and substance as a way of making people not even think of Biden. “She’s going to try and make him unimportant at the debate,” the adviser said.