KENT, Ohio — Scaring voters to the polls was not how Hillary Clinton planned to begin the final week before Election Day.
After establishing a durable lead over an opponent beset by allegations of sexual assault, Clinton thought she could close out a grueling, 18-month campaign on a rare positive note about her history-making candidacy, and her vision for better future for the country.
But then FBI Director James Comey ripped that plan apart. Friday’s shocking revelation that the FBI was reviewing new evidence in the old probe of Clinton’s private State Department email server — and that the evidence involved messages on the laptop of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s husband, disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner — has blocked Clinton’s final attempted pivot to the positive, which she has struggled with throughout the campaign.
Instead of giving the country “something to vote for,” as she has promised, Clinton went back to the well of what has served her best during tough moments: whacking Donald Trump hard on whether he is responsible enough to control the nuclear codes; highlighting his erratic personality; and stirring anxiety about the threat he would pose to the entire world order if elected president.
“I am running against a man who says he doesn’t understand why we can’t use nuclear weapons,” Clinton said Monday, addressing a crowd of about 3,000 supporters at Kent State University. “Even the prospect of an actual nuclear war doesn’t seem to bother Donald Trump … Let’s not get distracted from the real choice in this election.”
Fear was the letter of the day on an unseasonably warm Halloween day in Ohio. Introducing Clinton at her first rally of the day, Bruce Blair, a former U.S. Air Force Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile launch control officer, said he “would live in constant fear of his making a bad call” if Trump was elected president.
On Monday, the campaign underscored that point with the release of a new television ad, which it billed as a 2016 version of the famous 1964 “Daisy Ad” warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons landing in the wrong hands.
Clinton’s speech was reminiscent of what her advisers consider one of her most memorable addresses of her career: her evisceration of Trump’s foreign policy bonafides in San Diego last summer, where she first called Trump “temperamentally unfit” to serve as president.
Back in June, Clinton’s blistering speech was met with cheers from Democrats worried she wasn’t taking on Trump in strong enough terms. But this time, those same allies were crouched in fear on Monday. “Do I need to start looking for an apartment in Toronto?” one DNC delegate supporting Clinton emailed POLITICO on Monday afternoon, after her first rally in Kent.
Over the weekend, Clinton allies bemoaned the timing of Comey’s announcement — not only because it could have a significant impact on the election, but also because the majority of their pushback against the FBI director occur over the weekend.
“Middle of the week would have been much better,” grumbled one Clinton ally. They also admitted they felt like they were groping in the dark, with no idea what the investigation of Abedin’s computer would turn up.
Abedin, who typically travels with Clinton, was absent from the trail for the third day straight on Monday. A source close to Abedin said she had been spending the majority of her time holed up with lawyers while the extended Clinton world wondered what the probe meant for her potential in a future Clinton White House.
With eight days left in the race, many Democrats also questioned whether there was enough time to litigate a case against an FBI Director, who has the support of the White House.
“They have a legitimate beef,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama. “It has put them in a tough position eight days out, to defend against the broad inference his letter left. They probably don’t have a choice.”
But Axelrod warned, “where they cannot and should not go is to imply that Comey’s mission was to sink her campaign.”
On Monday, Clinton appeared to give a cue for campaign surrogates to make that implication on her behalf. “Why in the world the FBI would jump into an election without any evidence of wrongdoing?” she asked the crowd. “There is no case here.”
Clinton’s top campaign advisers in Brooklyn kept the heat on Comey while Clinton turned her heat on Trump — campaign manager Robby Mook accusing him of a “blatant double standard” when it came to not naming Russia in meddling in the U.S. election.
Clinton allies and advisers on Monday said they still felt cautiously optimistic about her chances on Nov. 8, but worried that the latest email flap would leave her further damaged entering the White House with an investigation hanging over her head and potentially giving up Democratic control of the Senate.
It also means she is more likely to come into office, if she wins, with historically low favorability ratings.
It’s the piece of the puzzle Clinton’s campaign has struggled with since 2014, when she first began contemplating what would motivate her second presidential run — highlighting what people look up to in the former secretary of state.
“There are powerful qualities that people admire in you, aspire to in their own lives, and wish for our country, as was the case for Obama in 2008 with ‘hope’ and ‘change,’’ her speechwriter Dan Schwerin wrote to Clinton in a memo from August, 2014, which was made public in the hack of campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email. He offered the idea that “resilience” could be Clinton’s answer to Obama’s 2008 mandate about “change.” In the memo, entitled “Searching for Hillary Clinton’s Big Idea,” Schwerin also noted to the former secretary of state that “your passions and commitments have to be at the heart of this process.”
But instead, the heart of the process has been a comparison on some basics. “You have to ask yourself,” Clinton said, “in a crisis, who would you trust?” Her closing argument was, in the end, laying out what voters need to vote against.
“Donald Trump has a dark and divisive vision for America,” she said, “that could tear our country apart.”
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