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Bernie stops being polite and Hillary starts getting real

Less than two months ago, the most heated argument between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was over the definition of “progressive” and who had a right to claim its mantle. That now feels like a more innocent time.

With the pivotal April 19 New York primary fast approaching, the tone and tenor of the Democratic primary has shifted almost overnight. Disagreements over policies and how to pay for them have been replaced by hard-hitting, personal attacks as a new and nastier phase of the nomination battle has opened up — and it’s unfolding, not by accident, in the media capital of the world.

Clinton on Wednesday accused Sanders of not being a Democrat and of siding with the gun lobby against the families of the children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. Sanders riled his supporters at a Philadelphia rally Wednesday night by claiming Clinton is not qualified for the Oval Office, and then suggested she was “hustling money from the wealthy and powerful” Thursday morning. Both candidates used the attacks to motivate supporters with fundraising pleas.

The Democrats for a year now have prided themselves on keeping their debate respectful and focused on the issues, while the Republicans lacerated each other with personal attacks. But the latest phase between Clinton and Sanders reveals the depth of their frustrations — Clinton still battling long after she thought it would be over; Sanders tired of being written off as he sees his fortunes stabilizing. And Democrats watching from the sidelines said they worry that two more months of Democrat-on-Democrat bloodshed could lead to a deeply divided party come the fall.

Clinton, allies say, is furious at Sanders’ persistent challenge in New York — and feels straitjacketed by the constraints of her front-runner status on her ability to respond to him. The Democratic front-runner took great pride in her ability to win over her adopted home state, which began with a successful 2000 Upstate listening tour when she first ran for Senate. Sanders’ challenge here in the state where she launched her career in elected office is deeply stinging, longtime allies said, and brings out the sharp-elbowed litigator in her.

Clinton allies said her more aggressive pose shows an unnecessary defensiveness — she still leads by roughly 250 delegates and is on track to capture the majority necessary to win the nomination. Going too negative against Sanders, allies said, is a dangerous strategy for a candidate like her with high unfavorability ratings. She risks turning off people who already don’t like her and could make it harder to make a convincing appeal to Sanders’ supporters down the line.

Democrats also worry that Sanders’ lack of connections to the party establishment will make him more immune to pressure to back Clinton. The attacks, Democrats said, don’t help anyone.

“Could a persistent, acrimonious battle between now and July damage the nominee? Maybe,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “Do cheap shots on each other and their supporters diminish them? At least for now, yes.”

Sanders, for his part, is enraged at being dismissed, especially after winning the important battleground state of Wisconsin on Tuesday night. The newly emboldened senator is on a roll, having won seven of the past eight contests after being written off for dead.

After Sanders’ attack Wednesday night, Clinton’s campaign immediately sent out a fundraising plea, begging supporters to chip in and “show Bernie Sanders there are consequences for this kind of attack.” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon called on Sanders to take back his words about the former secretary of state.

But Sanders’ team told POLITICO it has no intention of doing so — and said it plans to double down on the attack strategy through the New York primary.

Sanders senior strategist Tad Devine said in an interview that the campaign was responding to a CNN report that Clinton was going into full attack mode to “disqualify” Sanders — a strategy Clinton operatives denied.

“That’s when we received notice of what was coming down the pike,” Devine explained. “We are now confronted with a situation where we are going to look at two weeks of the campaign of constant attacks on Bernie Sanders. That’s just not going to stand. Bernie is not going to sit there and let Hillary and her surrogates question his qualifications.”

New York’s unique, hothouse media environment is exacerbating the tensions. A brutal interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, in which the Vermont senator stumbled trying to explain how he would break up the biggest banks, led Clinton to question his basic understanding of the very issues he has been running on.

“His decision to push back is well-justified and warranted,” said Devine, noting the attack on Clinton’s qualifications was also a reaction to the pressures of a two-tabloid media town. “There’s intense media concentration, and tabloid coverage creates this unique environment. The way to deal with it is not to become a piñata. The way to deal with it is to stand up and fight back. That’s precisely what he is doing. That’s what I expect him to do through the election in New York on the 19th.”

But Sanders’ heightened attacks could put Clinton in a position that works to her advantage — that of the victim, rather than the aggressor beating up on an underdog.

On Thursday, campaigning in the Bronx, Clinton was back to taking the high road. She told reporters that Sanders’ statement regarding her qualifications was a “kind of a silly thing to say. But I’m going to trust the voters of New York who know me and have voted for me three times. … I don’t know why he’s saying that, but I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz any time.”

She boarded an uptown 4 train from the 161st Street-Yankee Stadium stop and swiped her own MetroCard to enter the station — a move designed to highlight a recent Sanders gaffe when, in the Daily News interview, he appeared out of touch by not knowing that tokens are no longer used to ride the subway.

Boarding a train at Yankee Stadium — the home base of the team that Clinton was once mocked for embracing for political expediency — Clinton portrayed herself as a truer New Yorker than the Brooklyn-born Sanders. “It was my first term when we changed from tokens to MetroCards,” she said.

Democratic strategists said the campaign’s acrimonious turn is somewhat normal as time runs out and the stakes get higher. And they hoped the bad blood would be papered over by the stark contrast of the November election.

“All of that likely will be a distant memory by November if there is a [Donald] Trump or [Ted] Cruz on the other side,” said Axelrod.

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