Clinton and Sanders fight over who has the New York state of mind

Story highlights

  • It's been a tough introduction to New York's bare-knuckle politics and tabloid culture for Sanders
  • But Sanders warned Thursday that he is ready for the New York rough-and-tumble

(CNN)Hillary Clinton has a message for Bernie Sanders: I have a New York state of mind -- and you don't.

Everything Clinton is doing ahead of the April 19 New York primary -- from television interviews to a subway ride on Thursday morning -- is designed to underscore her home court advantage over her Brooklyn-born rival.
"I'm going to trust the voters of New York who know me and have voted for me three times, twice for Senate and once in the presidential primary," Clinton told the press on Thursday, driving home the point before hopping aboard the rush hour 4 train with a crowd of reporters and Secret Service agents in tow.
    She was even more direct in a Wednesday interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo: "I think I know the state a lot better."
    With those words, the Democratic front-runner summed up why she's such a firm favorite for the primary and her belief that the state she and her husband Bill Clinton have called home since they left the White House can help pave her way back there. Her knowledge of New York's diverse constituencies, the issues that resonate with voters and how to rally the Democratic establishment all give her confidence as Sanders has gotten off to a tough start in Big Apple.
    Sanders "is coming into what Hillary Clinton views as her lion's den -- she's been here, she knows how it operates," said CNN political commentator Van Jones.
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    Her moves come at a pivotal point in the Democratic race as a contest that was already tense took a sharp negative turn. Sanders sparked an uproar late Wednesday when he accused Clinton of not being "qualified" for the presidency. Clinton, meanwhile, has slammed Sanders on guns and foreign and domestic policy. The pair are poised for a showdown at the CNN Democratic debate April 14 in Brooklyn.
    Clinton needs a big win in New York and a majority of its 247 pledged delegates to bolster her hopes of finally putting the Democratic nomination out of the reach of Sanders' unexpectedly strong challenge before the end of April.
    Though the race is in flux, it's been a tough introduction to New York's bare-knuckle politics and tabloid culture for Sanders, who has never lost his Brooklyn accent but forged his career in the gentler political climes of Vermont.
    His rocky interview with the New York Daily News editorial board and a gun rights spat quickly combined to dim memories of a string of primary victories that culminated in his drubbing of Clinton in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
    But Sanders warned Thursday that he is ready for the New York rough-and-tumble.
    "If Secretary Clinton thinks that I just come from the small state of Vermont, we are not used to this, well, we will get used to it fast. We are not going to get beaten up," Sanders said in Philadelphia.
    And when it comes to feeling the political pulse of the state, the Sanders camp believes that Clinton, for all her establishment muscle, may be overlooking the potential of his populist economic message -- especially in upstate rust-belt areas.
    "That's the contest," said Bill Lipton, state director of Working Families, a progressive political party that is backing the Vermont senator, referring to the tussle between Sanders' message and Clinton's machine.
    "She has tremendous support from institutions and elected officials -- many of whom have deep roots in New York and are well respected. She has a history with people here," said Lipton.
    "On the flip side, he has got tremendous energy and a grass-roots volunteer army that believes in what he says," Lipton continued. "It is going to be exciting."
    The fact that Clinton is facing a fight in New York at all says something about the state of the Democratic campaign -- most pundits thought she would have put the nomination away by now. A mid-April battle on her adopted home turf seemed unlikely.

    Clinton's New York grooming

    But Clinton has several assets to draw on.
    After all, she won two terms in the Senate, has a political operation with deep coverage statewide and a genuine emotional connection with her constituents, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
    New York's political establishment, meanwhile, is lined up squarely behind her and she has the considerable weight of her husband's network to call upon. Plus, the state's embrace of hardball politics is a comfortable fit for her campaigning style.
    "(The Clintons) have been embraced in large part by the citizens of New York as New Yorkers," said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University's Elections and Campaign Management program.
    Indeed, Clinton has successfully overcame doubts about her late-in-life reinvention as a New Yorker. She grew up in Chicago, lived in Arkansas while Bill Clinton was governor and then spent eight years in the White House before buying a house in Chappaqua and running for the Senate.
    Sanders, who is surfing a wave of momentum from six wins out of the last seven state contests, believes he can upset the odds and hand what would be a devastating defeat to Clinton on home soil.
    But he needs to swiftly get over his rough start.
    His interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, in which Sanders gave hazy answers on his plan to break up big banks and seemed sketchy on details of Israeli security and the last war in Gaza that could alarm members of his party's influential Jewish constituency, earned Sanders a rebuke from the non-partisan Anti-Defamation League.
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    "As Mr. Sanders publicly discusses his approach to key U.S. foreign policy priorities, including Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, accuracy and accountability are essential for the voting public, but also for U.S. credibility in the international community," said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt in a statement.
    He later spoke to Sanders by phone and welcomed a clarification of his remarks.
    Sanders' stumble on Jewish politics, his being the only presidential candidate to skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual meeting last month and Clinton's detailed knowledge of Middle East affairs -- and their impact on U.S. politics -- provides an opening that the former secretary of state is likely to exploit.
    Sanders had additionally become embroiled in a spat with the daughter of the elementary school principal gunned down in the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, which sits just 90 minutes outside New York City.
    Erica Smegielski, a Clinton supporter, hit out at Sanders on Thursday for saying in the Daily News interview that victims' families should not be able to sue gun manufacturers.
    "I think that the families do deserve an apology," Smegielski said on CNN.
    Sanders supporters see these recent setbacks as momentary blips and believe that the infectious success of his populist economic message and denunciation of America's economic inequalities might be a better fit for New York in 2016 than Clinton thinks.

    Sanders looks upstate

    They are especially targeting upstate, western districts where she won strong support in her two Senate runs in 2000 and 2006, but where the state's heavy industry has taken a pummeling and where voters may be open to Sanders' hard line on trade deals.
    "You can ride around Buffalo or Syracuse or Rochester and see closed plant after closed plant -- all because of NAFTA and other trade debacles we have gotten into," said Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union, which is backing Sanders in the primary.
    Shelton claimed that New York had lost 370,00 jobs to the North America Free Trade Act and that his members would not forget that the deal with Canada and Mexico was ratified during the Clinton administration.
    "The person that is going to help them with this is Bernie Sanders," Shelton told CNN.
    Sanders backers also believe that his critique of income inequality is amply illustrated in New York's jarring contrasts.
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    After all, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who now supports Clinton, won a landslide election victory in 2013 on the basis of his "Two New Yorks" message.
    Sanders demonstrated the mobilizing power of his own economic creed when he drew 18,000 supporters to a rally in the Bronx last week.
    So it was significant that de Blasio came to Clinton's defense on Thursday, saying her rival had been wrong to argue Clinton was not qualified to be president and portraying the former secretary of state as an authentic progressive fighter for change.
    "I believe Hillary Clinton is going to win New York," de Blasio told CNN's "This Hour," though he did not rule out a close race in remarks that may offer hope to Sanders partisans. "I have no question Hillary has a majority in this city and in this state, but people have to turn out. The next 12 days are going to be decisive and it is going to be won on the ground."
    Polls underscore the task facing Sanders, who on Tuesday night declared Clinton was getting "very nervous" because he had an "excellent chance" to win New York on April 19.
    A Quinnipiac survey taken late last month has Clinton leading Sanders by 54 % to 42%, leaving him at a significant but not insurmountable disadvantage.