Story highlights

Clinton didn't take any shots at Sanders during her first post-New York rally on Wednesday night

Clinton aides say leaving Sanders largely out of her stump speeches is not part of any concerted strategy

Hartford, Connecticut CNN  — 

Hillary Clinton is trading her direct attacks against Bernie Sanders ahead of this week’s New York primary for a softer touch.

Clinton didn’t take any shots at Sanders during her first post-New York rally on Wednesday night, instead delivering her standard stump speech and casting the April 26 primaries in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland as a “great opportunity to start us on the path to the White House.”

“I can’t do this unless you help me,” Clinton told the audience.

Clinton continued the hands-off approach toward Sanders on Thursday in Connecticut, when she headlined a roundtable on gun violence, a topic the former secretary of state has long used to discredit the Vermont senator, whose record on guns is more conservative than much of the Democratic electorate.

Clinton only mentioned Sanders once during the event, knocking him for voting in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, a bill that gave gun manufacturers and sellers protection from liability if their products are used in killings.

“We had a vote on it. I was in the Senate. I voted against it. My opponent, Sen. Sanders, voted for it and what that has done is to basically prevent anyone, like families from Sandy Hook, like families from the Aurora movie theater murders, from trying to inject some common-sense requirements that people who make and sell guns be held to,” Clinton told the audience in Hartford. Sanders has said he does not think victims of gun violence should be able to sue manufacturers and sellers.

Clinton’s refrain, however, was dramatically different from the tone and tenor of the debate before the New York primary, when Clinton hit Sanders on guns by saying that the “highest per capita number” of guns used in New York crimes came from Vermont. That charge was rated false and misleading by most fact checkers but it was symbolic of the lengths the candidates went to hit one another in the Empire State primary.

Sanders, ahead of that contest, said Clinton was not qualified to be president, accused her of being bought and paid for by Wall Street and said the fact that she made paid speeches to different companies impacted her judgment.

Although there were questions about whether Sanders would change his tone and back off Clinton after New York, the Vermont senator hit Clinton in his standard compare-and-contrast style while speaking in Pennsylvania on Thursday.

One of the areas Sanders hit her hardest on Thursday night arose in the most recent CNN Democratic debate: whether or not the cap should be lifted on taxable income that goes into the Social Security fund.

“I have challenged Secretary Clinton – are you prepared to come aboard legislation that lifts the cap and expands Social Security benefits for seniors and disabled vets? And time after time after time she has waffled, not given a straight-forward answer,” he said to a crowd of few thousand in Oaks, who booed practically on-cue.

He concluded with an appeal he’s made before: “Secretary Clinton join us. Lift the cap and expand Social Security benefits.”

In Oaks, Sanders also revived his demand that Clinton release her Wall Street speech transcripts, calling the $225,000 speaking fees “a good day’s pay” and called her support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements “disastrous.”

Earlier in the day, he took a thinly-veiled jab at Clinton when he described the state of American politics today, characterizing is as “sitting in mansions, listening to terrible problems that billionaires have,” he mocked onstage in Scranton.

A message of ‘love and kindness’

Clinton aides say leaving Sanders largely out of her stump speeches is not part of any concerted strategy this week but rather an effort to focus on a more inclusive message in the coming days, trying to turn down the heat in what has become a contentious Democratic primary.

One aide characterized the message as “love and kindness” with a focus on local issues.

Clinton did this in Pennsylvania on Wednesday when she mentioned the number of gun deaths in the city over the weekend, including the story of a 4-year-old girl who was killed when a gun accidentally went off inside her home.

Aides said this change in tone, however, does not mean that Clinton is looking past the Vermont senator or won’t ever invoke the candidate whose top campaign aides contend still has a path to the nomination despite the loss in New York.

“As decisive as the outcome in New York was, we intend to spend the next week focused on the primary against Sen. Sanders and campaigning vigorously across all five states holding contests next Tuesday,” Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, said Wednesday. “We believe we can add to our pledged delegate lead even further, and pull that much closer to clinching the nomination.”

And the fact that Clinton has been hands-out does not mean that her aides and surrogates have followed along.

Minutes after Clinton left the stage at her New York victory party on Tuesday, Jennifer Palmieri, her communications director, charged Sanders with using “false character attacks” during the primary that were “destructive” to the race.

“There is no question … that the behavior of he and his campaign has been destructive,” Palmieri said. “It is not productive to Democrats, it is not productive for the country and as we can see from the results in this contest and I believe from the results of the March 15 contests, it doesn’t work.”

And aides have said Clinton’s campaign will still draw contrast with Sanders, as they did in an ad featuring Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

In the 60-second spot now running throughout Connecticut, Smegielski says Clinton “is the only candidate who has what it takes to take on the gun lobby,” a knock against Sanders.

“No one is fighting harder to reform our gun laws than Hillary Clinton,” she says in the direct ad. “She reminds me of my mother: she isn’t scared of anything.”

CNN’s Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.