COLUMBIA, S.C. — Emboldened by her South Carolina landslide, Hillary Clinton is shifting her focus to Republican front-runner Donald Trump as her party seeks consensus on the best ways to challenge the billionaire’s unpredictable nature in a general election.
As Clinton enters the series of Super Tuesday contests this week, allies of the former secretary of state, unaffiliated Democratic strategists and the national party are stockpiling potential ammunition about Trump, reviewing reams of court filings, requesting information about his business dealings from state governments and conducting new polls to test lines of attack.
Among the likely options: Questioning Trump’s qualifications and temperament to be president, scrutinizing his business practices and bankruptcy filings, and re-airing his inflammatory statements about women and minorities who will be central to the Democrats’ efforts in November.
“Is this the guy you would trust with the nuclear codes? Is this the guy you would trust with your son or daughter in the military? Is this the guy you would trust to run the economy?” asked Gov. Dan Malloy of Connecticut, a Clinton backer, pointing to a likely argument from Democrats.
Clinton, celebrating her rout of Democratic rival Bernie Sanders in South Carolina’s primary, took direct aim at Trump’s message on Saturday night, telling supporters, “Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great.”
“But we do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers,” she said.
While party leaders see Clinton in a favorable position against Trump, they caution that the real estate mogul has shown a mastery of the media and an ability to stay on offense throughout the GOP primaries. And they acknowledge Trump has successfully tapped into a deep vein of economic insecurity running through the electorate.
“Any race he is in is unpredictable,” said David Brock, a Clinton supporter who oversees several Democratic super PACs. “Any strategy we come up with today is going to have to be awfully flexible because we don’t know what to expect from this guy.”
Clinton aides and allies also worry that Trump’s unorthodox constituency of working-class white voters might allow him to put more states in play — particularly Midwestern swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin — compared to past nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain. And they note large voter turnouts in GOP primaries won by Trump.
But Democrats predict a Trump nomination could have a splintering effect on the Republican party and are looking for ways to exacerbate it.
A new survey of 800 likely Republican voters commissioned by a Democratic firm led by Stan Greenberg, who served as President Bill Clinton’s pollster, found that 20 percent of Republicans are “uncertain” whether they would back Trump or Clinton in a head-to-head match-up.
The number included one-quarter of Catholics and one-third of moderates, according to the survey by the Democracy Corps’ Republican Party Project shared with The Associated Press.
The poll found Trump’s share of the vote drops among Catholics and moderates when Democrats describe him as an “ego-maniac,” “disrespectful to women,” untrustworthy with the nation’s nuclear weapons and supporting a “big oil agenda.”
“If people are fearful that you can’t trust Trump with nuclear weapons, if you have Republican validators like Sen. McCain and other Republicans in the foreign policy establishment saying they can’t trust Trump, there’s a potential for a splintering off of huge Republican base voters,” Greenberg said.
But Republicans, Democrats argue, haven’t mounted a sustained campaign to undermine Trump’s image as a successful dealmaker. They envision a more extensive critique that would galvanize minority voters and women against Trump.
“Is there anything in his business record that suggested he’d be inclusionary,” asked Mark Morial, president of the National Urban League. “Did he hire minority-owned contractors? How diverse is the senior leadership of his companies?”
Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, said Trump’s derogatory comments about women during the primaries would mobilize female voters. She said as the “head of the party,” Trump would influence Senate races in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida.
Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, is increasingly pointing to Trump as the likely GOP nominee. Her rhetoric of “tearing down barriers” presents a contrast to Trump’s vow to build a massive wall along the Mexican border. In a recent fundraising appeal, Clinton said Trump was “looking more and more likely to be the Republican nominee. The man who riles up his crowds by calling Mexican-Americans criminals and suggesting Muslims should be banned from entering this country has limitless resources to run his campaign.”
Her message underscored Democrats’ interest in holding Trump below 30 percent support among Hispanics, a level few think would allow the businessman to win the White House.
While Trump spends far more time assailing his Republican rivals, he has previewed some attack lines he would likely use against Clinton, describing her as a liar and failed secretary of state who would have been indicted over her email scandal were she not so cozy with President Barack Obama. He has made clear he’s ready to take personal shots, bringing up her husband’s past infidelities and suggesting she was complicit in what Trump has described as the former president’s abuse of women.
Clinton aides say their campaign is focused on winning the primary and have not begun formally sketching out how they would tackle Trump or any Republican opponent. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping a close eye on the fellow New Yorker.
“The challenge that the Republicans are having running against him is that it’s a party that’s having an identity crisis,” said Clinton strategist Joel Benenson. “And they haven’t been able to resolve that.”
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Huntsville.