Inside the Clinton campaign's plan to keep the momentum going

Hillary Clinton's offensive vs. defensive strategy
Hillary Clinton's offensive vs. defensive strategy

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    Hillary Clinton's offensive vs. defensive strategy

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Hillary Clinton's offensive vs. defensive strategy 03:29

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)A confident Hillary Clinton is plunging into the next phase of her campaign, eager to capitalize on a new air of momentum that could give reluctant Democrats a fresh reason to rally around her presidential bid.

She's answered many of the biggest questions dogging her candidacy. She's moved beyond at least some of the distractions.
Her team is now taking urgent steps to avoid squandering a golden opportunity to inspire voters, spending more time campaigning and less time behind closed doors preparing for debates and Congressional hearings. She also intends to expand her focus beyond the four February early-voting states into Super Tuesday states that vote in March.
The first chance comes this week, with Clinton heading to New Hampshire for a two-day visit aimed at whittling away some of the advantages her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, has built over the summer. She intends to increase her attention on the state, which is the weakest link in her path to win the primary and could provide a critical test in how long the nominating fight lasts.
    Her message can be boiled down to five words: A fighter who can win.
    That's the argument her campaign has honed after taking the measure of voters through surveys and focus groups during a grueling summer.
    As she enters the final three-month stretch of the preseason campaign, she finally has the wind at her back after this trifecta: A commanding performance at the party's first debate; escaping a primary challenge from Joe Biden; and being emboldened from her testimony at the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which played out like a presidential endurance test.
    "I'm fighting for you," Clinton said to Democrats this weekend, a refrain she will deliver again and again in the 99 days until the voting begins February 1 in Iowa. "I'm going to deliver."
    Even as she basked in the glow of thundering applause at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, where she shared the stage with her two remaining rivals, she was also looking ahead to the next task: Persuading voters who weren't initially on her side to join her -- now.
    The notion of losing the primary to Sanders or Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, is not even discussed privately among her strategists. Even after seeing the raucous and passionate weekend crowd for Sanders, her advisers believe the only question facing Clinton is how long the nominating fight could last.
    The uncertainty in the Republican contest makes the Democratic primary look even more stable.
    Yet Clinton advisers bristle at any notion that her candidacy could become a coronation. They know such arguments would further inflame supporters of Sanders.
    He escalated his argument against Clinton in Iowa, suggesting she is a finger-to-the-wind politician and not a principled one. Advisers said Sanders would keep telling voters she has taken multiple positions on trade, gay marriage and energy policy.
    "I don't want negative ads and I don't believe in negative campaigning," Sanders told CNN after his speech Saturday night. "But what is the sense in being in a campaign if you don't differentiate your differences with your opponents?"
    The key to Clinton's strategy likely rests with winning over Democrats who are either currently lukewarm to her candidacy or already supporting O'Malley.
    Interviews with a dozen O'Malley backers at the Iowa dinner found 11 who told CNN they would support Clinton if O'Malley dropped out of the race or wasn't viable in the Iowa caucuses on February 1. A voter's second choice is important in the Democratic caucuses: If a candidate falls short of 15% in every precinct, voters must pick an alternative.
    "Hillary, I really believe, has the integrity, the experience to be president," said Sharon Acuff, 68, a retiree who was at the dinner to support O'Malley, but is open to Clinton. "After hearing her for 11 and a half hours being drilled, I think she handled it very well."
    In conversations with voters over the weekend in Iowa, the Benghazi hearing was repeatedly mentioned as a positive turning point in how they viewed Clinton.
    "I just like a lot of what she stands for," said Maria Downs, 51, an insurance adjuster who is supporting O'Malley but feels warmly toward Clinton. "I think we need a woman leader. I think she is strong and she showed that by sitting before a panel for so many hours and keeping her cool."
    For all the accolades Clinton has received, multiple obstacles remain.
    The FBI is still investigating her private email server she used as Secretary of State. She has struggled to tap into the liberal populist enthusiasm to the same degree as Sanders, who has overwhelmed her on several fronts, ranging from online fundraising to crowd counts.
    Still, there is little question Clinton has turned a corner -- even if only a psychological one after enduring one controversy after another this summer. But her 2008 loss to Barack Obama is a reminder for longtime supporters to take nothing for granted.
    "We had two good weeks, yes," said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign communications director, working to calibrate expectations. "But it doesn't mean from here on out that everything will be easy. It is going to be really hard to get the Democratic nomination."
    Bill Clinton, who made a rare appearance on the campaign trail in Iowa, is expected to increase his visibility in the campaign. He and others are sending the message, several Democrats say, that it will soon be time to fall in line behind her.
    Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a longtime confidant and cheerleader of the Clinton family, said the testimony at the Benghazi committee showcased Clinton's experience and presidential timber like nothing else could have. But he said it was far too early to take a victory lap.
    "Who wants to be presumptuous here?" McAuliffe told CNN. "We've got a long way to go."