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Story highlights

Hillary Clinton is preparing her team to take on Donald Trump

But first she has to get past Bernie Sanders, who won Indiana Tuesday night

Athens, Ohio CNN —  

Hillary Clinton’s campaign, even after losing Indiana to Bernie Sanders, is swiftly steering its attention to Donald Trump in the wake of him effectively seizing the Republican nomination Tuesday night.

Clinton is moving to transform her primary organization into a general election powerhouse, taking advantage of the operation she has built during the long Democratic primary. It’s this organization, aides say, that could be a critical weapon against Trump, who she’s been preparing for weeks to face.

The fact that Sanders won the Indiana primary does little to change the Clinton campaign’s turn to the general election, though it raises doubts among some Democratic voters that Trump will surely exploit.

Sanders claimed momentum after his win and pledged to not get out of the way, but Clinton aides met the narrow loss with a collective shrug, an admission that they have been looking past Sanders for weeks.

While Sanders staying in the race gives Clinton time to prepare for a full-blown fight with Trump, it could also become a distraction that could come with a cost.

Clinton has already hired state directors and field organizers in key battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio and is poised to travel to many of those states even before her battle with Sanders formally draws to a close.

Clinton and her top advisers have started to game out what her general election message would look like, eyeing how the former secretary of state would run against Trump. The Clinton campaign has accepted that fact that a race against Trump will be personal and messy. Trump signaled as much when he had lunch Monday with Ed Klein, a man known for his series of salacious but discredited books that take on the Clintons.

But Clinton’s aides, after grappling with more aggressive and passive strategies against Trump, have started to settle on what they are calling a more “aspirational” message that aides hope will win over Republicans disenchanted with Trump.

“You’re seeing that the possibility of a Donald Trump nomination is dividing his own party,” Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, said on Monday. “I do think that creates the opportunity to in this broad call for coming together and uniting the country that could resonate with a larger audience than just Democrats and Independents. I do think it could have appeal with Republicans too.”

The Clinton campaign hopes to carry out this two-front strategy until mid-June when the last primary votes are cast. Aides say that while Clinton will campaign in every state left on the primary calendar, she will also begin to make trips to general election terrain.

That was the strategy on display Tuesday when Clinton visited West Virginia in the morning, a state whose primary is on May 10, before driving across the border to Athens, Ohio for a general election focused speech where the candidate focused on Trump, ignored Sanders and targeted independent voters.

“We have had a lot of politicians make a lot of promises to you over the years that they couldn’t keep,” Clinton said. “I am not going to do that.”

The Clinton campaign’s general election plan also calls for broadening the electoral map by at least trying to challenge Trump in Republican-leaning states with a significant share of minority voters, like Georgia and Arizona. Her advisers feel more confident in traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Colorado, with a significant number of Hispanic voters, while they acknowledge a more competitive fight across the Rust Belt where Trump’s populist message is resonating.

Repairing image and bridges

But in addition to Trump, the Clinton campaign has another chief objective as it pivots to a fall campaign: Elevating her standing and repairing her battered image. The Democratic primary has taken a considerable toll on her favorability, trust and honesty, which strategists say is an urgent priority to try and turn around.

The campaign has been studying Clinton’s image with the electorate in hopes of finding ways to improve her standing among men and younger voters. Her strategists believe Trump will help make her seem far more acceptable to voters, when she is compared head-to-head with him.

But aides admit that the coming weeks will be critical for Clinton to repair her relationship with some Democratic and independent voters. Clinton has started to offer olive branches to Sanders supporters in speeches and aides expect those will become more obvious in the coming weeks.

Impact of Trump’s nomination on the electoral map

The turn to the general election has also seen a realization up and down Clinton’s operation that Trump will be the Republican they will face off against.

Earlier in the nominating process, Clinton’s campaign was largely in denial about Trump becoming the nominee. As the campaign progressed, though, aides began to realize that Trump, the candidate some laughed at early in 2015, will likely win.

The realization came in full around the South Carolina primary. What followed was an analysis of what that meant for the general election map.

“Trump is a total wild card,” one senior aide said in February, as Trump began to rack up primary wins. Aides began to then look at the map and acknowledge that while running against Cruz would shrink the map – making the race hone in on the same nine states that have been considered battlegrounds since 2000 – a Trump race would open up states like New Jersey, Maine and Michigan.

New state directors

To shore up support in what could be an expanded electoral map, Clinton’s campaign has tapped a cadre of Democratic operatives to lead its state-based operations, including some that steered successful Clinton primary campaigns.

Emmy Ruiz, the head of Clinton’s winning primary campaign in Nevada, will lead her Colorado operation, while Jorge Neri, Clinton’s primary organizing director in Nevada, will head up the Silver State in the general election. Mike Vlacich, Clinton primary state director in New Hampshire, will stay in the Granite State for the general election and Corey Dukes, the head of Clinton’s wining primary campaign in Pennsylvania, will lead the general election operation in the state.

The campaign has also turned to operatives outside the Clinton orbit for help in key battleground states. Simone Ward, a former top operative at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, will lead Clinton’s operation in Florida and Aaron Pickrell, state director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, will be the senior advisers to Clinton’s Ohio campaign with Chris Wyant, another veteran of Obama’s campaigns, will serve as state director.

Brian Zuzenak, the director of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC and the former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will head up Clinton’s Virginia operation.

Democratic parties in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado have started to build coordinated campaigns for the general election, according to sources with knowledge of the planning. And Clinton campaign organizers have already started moving to states to be part of those campaigns.

Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters has also started to turn from a primary campaign to a general election juggernaut. The campaign added another floor of offices in order to make room for what aides expect will be a growing research and analytics department.

Top aides including John Podesta, the campaign’s chairman; Robby Mook, the campaign manager; Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign communications director and Jake Sullivan, the campaign’s senior policy adviser, have all moved from the campaign’s main 11th floor open office to the new 10th floor space in order to make room.

Clinton’s campaign has also hired Minyon Moore as a top aide to the campaign, aide announced Monday. Moore, a longtime Clinton aide who bridges the gap between Hillary and Bill Clinton’s worlds, will handle a host of issues, including political outreach and general election strategy, and will work closely with the group of senior staffers on the 10th floor.

Donors close to the campaign, who have watched the campaign move towards the general election from the sidelines, are also eyeing a possible turn to general election fundraising even before the primary is over in June, pushing the campaign to open their coffers to general election funds.

Clinton will continue to raise primary dollars through May, according to aides who say the campaign has no plans to start soliciting general election funds “any time soon.”