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Washington Post

Clinton broadens effort to target wary Republicans

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Foto: Andrew Harnik/AP

Donald Trump's flailing campaign has prompted Democrats to launch a new, broad effort to offer Hillary Clinton as a safe harbor for Republicans who find they can no longer stomach the GOP presidential nominee.

Clinton's campaign is quietly broadening its outreach to potential Republican converts, including donors, elected officials, and business and foreign policy leaders. The message is simple: Even if you have never before considered voting for a Democrat, and even if you don't like Clinton, choosing her this year is a moral and patriotic imperative.

"Duty, honor, country," is how one person familiar with recent campaign outreach put it.

The recruitment is a continuation of the campaign's efforts to sway influential Republicans and independents, which began in earnest as Trump appeared likely to secure the GOP nomination during the spring.

It escalated during and after the Republican convention, which drew fewer senior elected Republicans than usual and included scenes of discord. Trump himself helped the Clinton cause most with remarks on the economy and foreign policy during and after the Democratic convention, Clinton aides said. Chief among those was a public feud with the family of a Muslim soldier, Humayun Khan, who died in battle in Iraq.

This week, his refusal to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Sen. John McCain of Arizona during their primaries this month has further alienated mainstream conservatives and Republican establishment figures.

The Clinton campaign would not discuss the recruitment effort in detail, including specific additional targets among Republican elected officials or other leaders. But according to several Democrats with knowledge of the effort, it includes personal appeals to target luminaries by senior Democrats including John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman. The campaign is also tracking Republicans who have spoken out against Trump in public even if they have stopped short of endorsing Clinton.

The idea is to make Republican voters more comfortable supporting Clinton by showing them examples of leaders in many realms who have chosen to disavow Trump as a matter of principle. The effort combines Clinton campaign staff and resources with outside go-betweens, Clinton officials said.

"When you look at what went on at the Republican convention, and then in contrast the Democratic convention, for a lot of Republicans this was their moment to take that close look at the two candidates," Clinton chief strategist and pollster Joel Benenson said.

"A lot of people are waking up and saying: 'What am I doing here? Let's see what I hear on the other side.' They have to look for a place to land that's in the best interest of the country."

Benenson noted that Republicans themselves have begun an "organic" effort to encourage one another to reject Trump.

Several Republicans were among a group of former cabinet officers, senior officials and career military officers who denounced Trump on Thursday, calling his recent remarks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia "disgraceful."

The open letter takes issue with Trump statements that appear to question the alliance, encourage Russia to hack and release Clinton's deleted State Department emails, and seem to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, which the United States considers illegitimate. The letter does not endorse Clinton, although several of the individual signers have done so separately.

"There are people, Republicans, saying it's time to put country before party. That's not a thing any Democrat can say to a Republican. That's something only a Republican can say to a Republican," Benenson said in an interview.

The Clinton campaign invited several Republicans to make that argument at the Democratic convention last week, including Douglas Elmets, a White House spokesman under former president Ronald Reagan.

"Trump appeals to our basest instincts, our worst selves," said Elmets, who has taken it upon himself to write op-eds, appear on television and speak out in other ways to encourage other Republicans to support Clinton.

Elmets said he was asked to speak at the convention by a friend active in Democratic politics in California who acted as a go-between with convention organizers.

"At the end of the day, I can see the fish rotting at the head," said Elmets, referring to Trump's effect on the Republican Party.

Since the close of the convention, Clinton secured the public endorsement of entrepreneur, sports team owner and reality TV personality Mark Cuban, who had earlier indicated that he might vote for Trump. She was also endorsed by Hewlett-Packard executive and Republican fundraiser Meg Whitman. More are in the works, including Republicans who have held senior foreign policy roles in the executive branch and Congress, Democrats familiar with the effort said.

In addition, retiring Rep. Richard Hanna of New York became the first sitting Republican member of Congress to endorse Clinton this week. Senior campaign aides to former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, two former GOP candidates, also said they are backing Clinton.

It remains unclear whether trotting out Republican endorsers will translate to significantly more Republican support at the polls.

In the battleground state of North Carolina, Clinton is likely to have a tough time courting Republicans, but "it's probably worth the effort," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP strategist. Wrenn estimated about 20 percent of Republicans there "don't like Hillary at all, but they don't care for Trump, either."

"The question is whether they pass on the presidential race entirely," Wrenn said. "I don't think Hillary is going to get many Republican votes, and I think she knows that." But just neutralizing those voters, he said, could be helpful in a race that is most likely to be decided by which candidate can better mobilize independents.

Campaign officials and close Clinton allies cautioned that the Republican outreach is not a foundation for her election strategy, which focuses chiefly on women, Hispanics and younger voters, and holding onto the battleground states President Barack Obama won in 2012.

"We're not going to forget where we came from, but we know there is a window to reach beyond our traditional supporters, and we're going to try very hard to reach these folks," a Clinton aide said.

It is also worth noting that even as Democrats court Republicans, the candidate is pressing ahead on the campaign trail with a jobs-and-economy message that keeps her out of the way of the damaging news coverage Trump has brought upon himself.

And they say they are not taking victory for granted even as they seize on this new opportunity. Clinton strategists do not expect that the double-digit lead she has opened in some battleground state polls this week will last.

Bill and Hillary Clinton were described as "circumspect" and "not giddy" by a person who spoke to them recently.

"Everyone just assumes this is a slog," that person said.

But the campaign and its outside allies are feeling more confident with roughly three months to go before the election.

The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA did not renew its ads in Colorado and Virginia. Spokesman Justin Barasky said the PAC plans to return to the airwaves in both battleground states at the end of the month, but the lapse is a sign that both the campaign and PAC view the two states as safer than before.

On Thursday, Clinton visited an energy company founded by a prominent local Republican in Nevada. Clinton used the stop at Mojave Electric to highlight a piece of her jobs plan that would reward businesses such as owner Dennis Nelson's with a $1,500 tax credit for each apprentice they hire.

Earlier this week, she toured a small necktie manufacturer in Colorado to tout American manufacturing and zing Trump for making his Trump-branded ties overseas.

But Trump's tough week has been met by relative silence on the Clinton trail. The principle is to let Trump dominate the news cycle, while Clinton garners local headlines on her jobs plan.

After the Denver stop on Wednesday, for example, the Denver Post's three-column, front-page headline read, "Clinton pledges millions of jobs."

"Whenever any political candidate is doing damage to themselves every day, the wisest course of action is - within reasonable limits - to stay out of the news and allow the other candidate to continue to do damage," said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Clinton ally.

After appearing with Clinton at a rally in Las Vegas, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, warned Democrats not to be overconfident. But, citing recent polling, he said Clinton's electoral map has the potential to extend to deeply red states.

Reid said Georgia, Arizona and Utah are three states where Clinton could potentially do well in the race against Trump.

"I hope the map is expanded," Reid told reporters. "It would be good for the country."

According to a person close to a pro-Clinton super PAC, the outlook for the fall has not changed significantly since the conventions, and they expect Clinton's bump in the polls and Trump's rough patch to both level off.

Her allies view the task of electing a Democrat to three consecutive presidential terms as monumental, making a landslide election rare in recent history and unlikely for Clinton - even against Trump. It is particularly difficult, they say, given that more than half of Americans have said in recent polling that the country is on the wrong track.

"We are sailing into spectacular head winds," the person said.

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