WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. >> For months, Democrats argued that voters would get “serious” about the campaign once it reached the fall and would reject Donald Trump’s no-holds-barred approach.
They’re still waiting.
With fewer than 50 days left, polling shows a tightening national race and — most unnerving to Democrats — a Trump rise in key battleground states. But as Trump’s provocative appeal gains traction, Hillary Clinton is sticking with the traditional playbook: Lots of attack ads, a focus on getting out the vote and intense preparation for next week’s first general election debate.
Her approach underscores what’s emerged as a central question of the 2016 campaign: Can Clinton’s play-it-safe political strategy win against a chaos candidate?
Even President Barack Obama, who long dismissed the idea of a future Trump administration, has started ringing alarm bells, warning Democratic supporters to expect a tight race that Clinton could possibly lose. Recent polls suggest the Republican may have an edge in Iowa and Ohio and is likely in a close race with Clinton in Florida and North Carolina.
“This guy is not qualified to be president,” Obama told donors at a Manhattan fundraiser on Sunday. “This should not be a close election, but it will be.”
Clinton’s campaign, Democrats say, has little choice but to stick with its plan. The always-measured Clinton, they argue, can’t out-improvise one of the most unpredictable politicians of the modern era.
“We’re going through the roller-coaster rides of campaigns. All she can do is just keep plowing ahead,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s Florida operation in 2008 and advised him four years later. “She’s going to win it by grinding it out.”
Hoping to calm some supporters’ concerns, Clinton’s campaign sent out a memo Monday, reminding them that the electoral map favors Democrats. The memo charted various paths to 270 electoral votes and urged backers to channel their worry into volunteering.
“Battleground states carry that name for a reason: They’re going to be close, from now until Election Day,” wrote campaign manager Robby Mook. “But we are going to win them because we’ve spent the past year building a superior ground game to communicate our message and turn our people out to vote. So instead of worrying, let’s just get to work!”
But Trump, who lacks Clinton’s organized effort on the ground but regularly fills massive arenas, is far from a standard opponent. In the primary, he knocked off more than a dozen rivals who took a basically standard approach to his unpredictable rhetoric.
“Everybody in the primary at one point or another tried to take Donald Trump down in the way you take someone down who says absurd things and none of them worked,” said Rick Tyler, a former aide to primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz. “She’s trying to do more of the same. And more of the same isn’t working.”
Clinton aides see next week’s debate at Hofstra University as a key moment. The Monday night match-up will finally give voters a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side.
Clinton must communicate the “contrast and choice to voters that are tuning in for the first time,” said spokesman Brian Fallon.
For his part, Trump has begun taking baby steps toward becoming a slightly more traditional candidate, reading off teleprompters, rolling out policy proposals and making overtures to minorities — creating even more uncertainty among Democrats about how he’ll act on the debate stage.
Though aides decline to detail debate preparations, Clinton has built a lot of downtime into her schedule for recent weeks. Then there was the pneumonia episode.
She is holding sessions with experienced Democratic debate experts, including Ron Klain, Karen Dunn and Robert Barnett, all of whom advised Obama. One closely held secret: the identity of the person playing Trump in the sessions.
“In an unpredictable race against an unpredictable candidate, by definition the only thing you can control is what you do,” said Mo Elleithee, a former Clinton aide who’s now head of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service. “They’re focusing on that.”
While Clinton has been prepping, her team has stuck with its strategy: Define Trump in the summer with a barrage of negative ads.
Clinton’ campaign and allies have spent more than $180 million on TV and radio advertising between mid-June and this week, according to Kantar Media’s political ad tracker. Trump and his supporters spent about $40 million in the same time period.
It’s a strategy that mirrors the one pursued by Obama during his re-election campaign, when his team barraged Mitt Romney through the summer with ads casting him as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
But Clinton, with deep unfavorability ratings of her own, is a far different candidate from Obama. Her team is making a renewed push to ensure turnout from groups who supported the president — young voters, Latinos and African-Americans. But she acknowledges she has work to do, telling young voters in Philadelphia on Monday she understands they “may still have some questions” about her.
Looking to the debates, Clinton says she’s ready for whatever Trump sends her way.
“I am going to do my very best to communicate as clearly and – and fearlessly as I can in the face of the insults and the attacks and the bullying and bigotry that we’ve seen coming from my opponent,” she said on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.” ”I understand it’s a contact sport.”
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. >> (AP) — Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of giving “aid and comfort” to Islamic terrorists Monday, declaring after a weekend of violent attacks in three states that his anti-Muslim rhetoric helps groups like ISIS recruit new fighters. Trump showed no sign of changing, casting “many” foreigners coming to the U.S. as a “cancer within.”
The Democratic presidential candidate touted her own national security credentials at a hastily arranged news conference outside her campaign plane, saying she was the most qualified to combat terrorism and accusing Republican Trump for using the incidents to make “some kind of demagogic point.”
“I’m the only candidate in this race who’s been part of the hard decisions to take terrorists off the battlefield,” Clinton, a former secretary of state, told reporters. “I have sat at that table in the Situation Room.”
She added: “I know how to do this.”
The possibility of a home-grown terrorist plot cast a long shadow over the presidential race, diverting both candidates’ attention from the daily controversies of the presidential race and giving them a high-profile opportunity to make their case to undecided voters.
Clinton and her team see her experience and what they say is her steady judgment as key selling points for her candidacy. On the campaign trail, she frequently invokes her role in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, describing to voters the tense atmosphere in the White House alongside President Barack Obama.
But while much of the foreign policy establishment has rallied around Clinton, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, promises to close U.S. borders and vows to aggressively profile potential terrorists have fueled his presidential bid.
On Monday, he hit hard on those points, calling for tougher policing, including profiling foreigners who look like they could have connections to terrorism or certain Mideastern nations.
“Knock the hell out of ‘em,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in a telephone interview.
“We don’t want to do any profiling,” he said of current U.S. policy. “If somebody looks like he has a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person and say I’m sorry because if he looks like he comes from that part of the world we’re not allowed to profile. … Give me a break.”
Pointing to her “aid and comfort” remark and others, Trump’s campaign said Clinton was accusing him of treason, going beyond the bounds of acceptable campaigning and trying to change the subject from her own failures. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon responded: “The Trump campaign can call it whatever they want; Hillary Clinton will continue to call it out.”
Clinton urged voters not to “get diverted and distracted by the kind of campaign rhetoric we hear from the other side.” She insinuated that Islamic militants, particularly those affiliated with ISIS, are rooting for Trump to win the White House. The Republican has said he would bar immigration from nations with ties to terrorism.
“We’re going after the bad guys and we’re going to get them, but we’re not going to go after an entire religion,” Clinton said.
Clinton briefly turned her focus from national security on Monday, wooing younger voters at a midday rally in Philadelphia.
At an invitation-only event at Temple University, she acknowledged that she needs to do more to get millennials on board.
“Even if you are totally opposed to Donald Trump, you may still have some questions about me. I get that. And I want to do my best to answer those questions,” she told several hundred students gathered in an ornate, wood-paneled lecture hall.
This election marks the first presidential campaign where millennials make up the single largest generation among U.S. adults, having surpassed baby boomers during the past four years. The group helped anchor Obama’s support, but Clinton has failed to attract them in the same numbers.
She was to meet with the leaders of Egypt, Ukraine and Japan late in the day in New York City. The leaders are in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Trump announced plans to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Monday.
New York officials said Monday the bombings in a Manhattan neighborhood and a New Jersey shore town were looking increasingly like acts of terrorism with a foreign connection. Authorities were also investigating the stabbings of nine people at a Minnesota mall as a possible act of terrorism.
An Afghan immigrant wanted for questioning in the bombings was captured in New Jersey Monday after being wounded in a gun battle with police, authorities said.
The events came as both candidates were dealing with missteps. Trump and his allies spent Sunday — repeatedly and falsely — accusing Clinton of pushing the idea that President Obama was not born in the U.S. — a conspiracy theory long championed by Trump himself.
Clinton, meanwhile, is still facing questions about her health and openness after a video caught her staggering after abruptly leaving a 9/11 ceremony.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Bill Barrow contributed to this report from New York and Indianapolis.