NEW YORK—Hillary Clinton is growing increasingly frustrated with not being able to shake Bernie Sanders — an irritation that is growing exponentially as the candidates face off on her home turf in New York.
Confronted on the rope line in Westchester County on Thursday by a protester accusing her of being in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, Clinton reached her limit for smiling past her antagonists, and snapped.
“I am so sick, I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me,” a heated and glary-eyed Clinton told a Greenpeace activist who asked her to pledge to reject oil and gas money in her campaign.
“I’m sick of it,” she said, pointing her finger insistently in the woman’s face.
It was a brief encounter, about 20 seconds long, but the outburst nevertheless made some longtime allies who saw a viral YouTube clip of the exchange wonder how she’ll react to more heated attacks in a general election.
“This is a docile campaign that has not raised serious negatives about her,” said one longtime ally, noting the attacks and accusations in a potential matchup against Donald Trump are only going to get worse. But close associates diagnosed the problem as Clinton feeling too much Bern.
Clinton has worked hard this election to look like she is taking nothing for granted, and her top campaign advisers have been trying since Day One to undermine any sense that she expected to be coronated as Democratic nominee.
But the fact that Sanders is now making her work for New York, the state where she lives and which she represented for eight years in the Senate, is seriously testing Clinton’s patience. A rope line accuser in a place she expected a homecoming — Purchase, New York, was the upstate hamlet where she kicked off her political career when she ran for Senate in 2000 — was the final straw.
After winning a clean sweep of five states on March 15 — Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio — Clinton and her operatives celebrated as though the nominating process was over. At her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, Clinton staffers sang along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” waving flags in the air, drinking beer and posting the victory videos on Twitter.
Now, the expected pivot to November is stalled as the primary drags on. “After she won the five states, they all thought, ‘OK we’re done,’” said a Clinton ally with close ties to the campaign. “Now, it’s an annoyance. Now they’re challenging her on the rope line. People in the audience are challenging her. She’s in a state of, ‘What else do I have to do?’”
In general, Clinton has been able to parry aggressive questions about her emails or her handling of Benghazi as secretary of state that she gets on the trail. But sometimes she allows voters who challenge her fundamental sense of who she is and what she stands for to rile her.
In the case of Thursday’s encounter at the rope line, Clinton has accepted contributions from people who work for fossil fuel companies. But the woman’s insinuation that campaign contributions mean Clinton is bought and paid for by powerful interests — which her operatives believe is being unfairly propagated by the Sanders campaign — cut the former senator to the core.
Her reaction was also a sign of the creeping exhaustion of the candidates who are now almost a year into the grind. Campaigning in Iowa last January when she was still fresh and expecting a hard fight, for instance, Clinton kept her cool when she was confronted by a woman who grilled her about sending confidential State Department emails from a private server.
“You know what, it’s not true,” Clinton replied politely. “It’s not true. I never sent or received … ”
“You never received top secret information on your private server?” the woman interrupted.
“No, no I did not,” Clinton said, even staying with the woman to answer her follow-up questions instead of shrugging her off.
But greeting voters and posing for pictures in a Minnesota coffee shop last month, the drain of the trail appeared to be adding up. Clinton was less restrained when she was approached by a young black woman who brought up a speech she made in 1996, in which she referred to “gangs of kids” committing crimes with “no conscience, no empathy” as “super-predators.’”
“How do we know you’re going to be accountable to black communities?” the young woman asked her.
“I think you can look at my history,” Clinton responded. “I always have been.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” the woman pressed. “I’ve looked at your history and it’s not what happened.”
“Well, you know what, you’ve got to look harder,” Clinton said, growing agitated. “I’m happy to give you more information. The reason that so many black people across America support me is because they know me, they know what I’ve done, and they know that I’ll do what I say.”
When it became clear the woman was not going to change her mind, Clinton turned off the charm offensive. “You know what, dear, you have a different opinion,” she said. And then, with a curtness that caused supporters milling around her to turn their heads: “Why don’t you go run for something then? Good luck to you.”
As the young woman sauntered off, the crowd watching the exchange stood awkwardly gaping while Clinton smiled and sipped her coffee.
Allies said Clinton and her campaign operatives are confident they will win New York’s April 19 primary, but are worried about meeting expectations in her backyard, where Sanders is now trailing Clinton by 12 points and appears to be gaining momentum. On Thursday night at a rally in the South Bronx, he turned out an overflow crowd of 18,500 people.
Campaigning in Syracuse on Friday, Clinton appeared to get her better humor back as she talked about her record as senator. At a business roundtable on manufacturing, a participant suggested attracting young people to the business by marketing manufacturing as “sexy.”
“Gotta make it sexy,” Clinton laughed. “I agree with that.”
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