As primary race tightens, Democrats brace for a messy winter
There was a time when Democrats fretted about Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign becoming a coronation and leaving her without the tests of a primary season to prepare for a general election match up against the Republican nominee.
No one is worried about that anymore.
In the past two weeks, the Democratic race has gone from a relatively civil disagreement over policy to a contentious winter competition between former Secretary of State Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Clinton's institutional strength and her support among the minority voters who make up a large portion of the party's base still put her in a formidable position, even as polls show Sanders surging in Iowa and maintaining an edge in New Hampshire.
But should Sanders prevail in those first two states on the 2016 campaign calendar, Clinton's bid to succeed President Barack Obama may mean a much longer and messier path than her supporters once envisioned. It would plunge Democrats into the kind of primary fight they have gleefully watched Republicans struggle to contain in the past year.
"You have to look at these numbers and say there's a real race going on," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It's a race where Hillary Clinton has significant advantages in the long run. But it's a real race."
The contest was certain to intensify now, with the Democratic candidates gathering in Charleston, South Carolina, last night for a party dinner and the annual fish fry hosted by Rep James Clyburn, D-S.C. Then there's today's debate, the final one before the Iowa caucuses on February 1. The New Hampshire primary is February 9.
"I think it is a new phase of the campaign," said Joel Benenson, Clinton's chief campaign strategist. "We talked about how close this was going to be in (Iowa and New Hampshire). They always are historically and we're ready to have this debate engaged."
In the past week, Clinton has shifted course in apparent response to Sanders' strong poll results. She has stepped up her criticism of her rival, a self-described democratic socialist, after carefully avoiding that during the campaign.
The new approach carries risks. Sanders is popular with liberals who are part of the coalition that Clinton will need to win the White House.
Clinton and her supporters still remember her disappointing third-place finish in Iowa in 2008 against Obama. Clinton's team retooled her schedule to add stops in Iowa in the week ahead. The candidate has made near-daily television appearances where she has challenged Sanders' stances on health care and gun control.
Clinton and Sanders are each booked on four morning news shows today.