Hillary Clinton is finding her political footing.
In the space of a week, the presumptive Democratic nominee delivered a sober national security speech addressing the worst mass shooting in American history; won the resounding endorsement of the sitting commander in chief; and castigated Donald Trump as a “loose cannon” better suited for reality television than the Situation Room.
The massacre at an Orlando gay club that killed 49 people early Sunday thrust national security and terrorism to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign, just days after Clinton clinched her party’s nomination for the White House last week. The horrific event – the worst terrorist attack since 9/11 – offered Clinton the chance to make a powerful case for her foreign policy experience, and ample opportunity to deliver scathing criticism of her rival.
In back-to-back speeches on Monday and Tuesday, Clinton unleashed blistering rebukes of Trump’s candidacy. Pointing to his response to the Orlando tragedy – in particular, his renewed calls to temporarily ban Muslims and other migrants from entering the United States – Clinton slammed Trump as “temperamentally unfit” and “totally unqualified” to be leader of the free world.
“It was one thing when he was a reality TV personality – you know, raising his arms and yelling, ‘You’re fired,’” Clinton said at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh Tuesday afternoon. “It is another thing altogether when he’s the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president.”
And Clinton, who has publicly acknowledged that she doesn’t consider herself a natural campaigner, appeared at ease lobbing one personally charged attack after another.
“Americans don’t need conspiracy theories and pathological self-congratulations,” Clinton said about Trump, before hitting her rival for his “bizarre rants” and “outright lies.”
Clinton is showing no sign of letting up. She will head to Hampton, Virginia, on Wednesday to host an event with veterans and military families in what the campaign says will be an extension of her foreign policy remarks this week.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month showed that 61% of Americans believe Clinton has a “better personality and temperament” to serve effectively as president, compared to 31% who said the same about Trump. The majority of respondents — 67% — also said Clinton has better experience to be president, compared to 24% for Trump.
Meanwhile, a new Bloomberg poll Tuesday showed Clinton leading Trump nationally, 49% to 37%, with Libertarian Gary Johnson at 9%. That survey gave Trump an edge on terrorism: 50% of likely voters said Trump would be better at combating terror threats at home and abroad, to Clinton’s 45%.
The polls margin of error on the terrorism question was 4.9 percentage points compared to 3.6 percentage points for the overall survey.
Prominent Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said a continued focus on national security presents Clinton and her party a “real opportunity” to make both a forceful character and policy argument against Trump.
“Trump’s unsteadiness and lack of stability and his inclination for overreaction undermines everything else that Republicans are trying to say about national security,” Garin said. “Americans are concerned about somebody who they think might be reckless in their conduct on foreign policy.”
Clinton’s performance stands in stark contrast to Trump’s first weeks as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, rife with controversies and missteps. His criticism of a federal judge’s Mexican heritage drew near unanimous criticism from fellow Republicans; internal power struggles within the Trump campaign have produced numerous unflattering headlines; and the candidate’s continued anti-immigrant rhetoric has party leaders on edge.
For his part, Trump is also hoping that the spotlight on national security can benefit his campaign. He is relying on the kind of nationalistic rhetoric that buoyed him during the primary season to give him a similar boost heading into November. But some of his immediate reactions to the Orlando tragedy – including a self-congratulatory tweet – came off as tone deaf, or worse.
In a speech Tuesday night, Trump offered fiery criticism of Clinton.
“If Hillary Clinton becomes president I don’t know that our country will ever, ever come back – I mean it,” Trump said.
The contrast that Clinton is looking to draw is clear. The former senator and secretary of state is positioning herself as a steady and experienced hand who wants to bring the country together in times of crises, while painting Trump – who has never run for public office before – as divisive, volatile and utterly lacking in substance.
Republican Rep. Peter King told CNN this week that so far, Trump has failed to make a coherent case against the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He forcefully pushed back on Trump’s proposal to keep Muslims out of the country.
“He has to show more sophistication and more knowledge and nuance,” King said. “You’re not gonna win just by bombing, you’re not going to win just by kicking Muslims out – in fact, I wouldn’t even support that.”
The New York congressman added that he fears Trump’s rhetoric on national security could hurt the public’s broader perception of the GOP’s ability to tackle terrorism: “Just from a political point of view, for Obama’s policies get the upper hand at a time when we should have the upper hand even makes it more distressing.”
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report