Hillary Clinton's challenge: Shift focus back to Trump

Hillary Clinton needs to make Donald Trump unacceptable again.

With Democratic nerves jangling amid tightening polls and the fallout of the FBI's email curveball in the final days of the election, Clinton is fervently trying to make the race about Trump's character and foibles -- not hers.

Clinton has spent months emphasizing a message that Trump is morally and intellectually unfit for the presidency. The hope was that the strategy would deliver in the last days of the election, with wavering voters struggling with their conscience over a vision of the volatile billionaire in the Oval Office.

But revelations that the FBI is reviewing a new trove of emails found on a computer shared by Clinton confidante Huma Abedin and her estranged husband Anthony Weiner severely challenged that plan.

Voters are now facing a torrent of media coverage focusing on the emails that probes not Trump's greatest vulnerability but Clinton's — long simmering suspicions about her character, record on transparency and honesty.

And for now, Clinton is getting no help from Trump, who has reliably managed to torpedo his own political interests for much of the general election. But over the past few days, he's found some measure of message discipline amid his rival's woes.


Character in the spotlight

It's an enduring cliche of the 2016 general election race that whichever unpopular, polarizing presidential nominee finds their character in the spotlight tends to suffer in the polls. And though there is not yet conclusive evidence the FBI email bombshell is directly wounding Clinton, it's clear that the race nationally and in battleground states is narrowing as Election Day approaches.

That leaves the Democratic nominee increasingly desperate to escape the spotlight.

Clinton's efforts to eviscerate Trump intensified Tuesday with the release of a new ad in battleground states savaging his attitude towards women.

The spot includes footage from the infamous "Access Hollywood" video in which Trump boasted about his sexual advances on women, includes footage of him saying "putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing" and of the GOP nominee's past remarks about women being flat-chested, ugly and fat.

The ad, which will run in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, ends with a kicker that makes the case that anyone who says, does or believes such things is unfit to be president.

Clinton followed up by appearing Tuesday with pageant contestant Alicia Machado, with whom Trump feuded much to his political detriment after the Democratic nominee highlighted his treatment of her in the first presidential debate.

"Can we just stop for a minute and reflect on the absurdity of Donald Trump finding fault with Miss Universe?" Clinton said.

The new offensive represents an attempt to preserve Clinton's advantage among women voters, a constituency that has been especially outraged by Trump and is vital to her hopes in swing states like Colorado and Pennsylvania.


Exploiting other weaknesses

Clinton's campaign is also seeking to exploit other weaknesses lurking in Trump's past. Her campaign chief, Robby Mook, is pushing claims that the real estate magnate has nefarious ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

This strategy is a twofer for the Clinton campaign, which is also lambasting FBI Director James Comey, who ignited the new email drama, by arguing that he was less interested in releasing information about alleged Russian interference in the election than he is in raising Clinton's emails. The Clinton case is such interventions that could sway elections are contrary to Justice Department practice and precedent ahead of elections.

"Why is it important to hold back information about Russians and it's not important to hold back information about a Democratic candidate for president?" Mook said on CNN's "New Day" Tuesday.

"It is mind boggling and Director Comey needs to answer this."

The FBI has been conducting multiple investigations of alleged connections between Russia and Trump, his presidential campaign or its backers. But none so far have yielded proof of criminal connections between the parties.

Clinton's allies are also ratcheting up scrutiny on Trump's character.

Her Super PAC, Priorities USA, is also slamming Trump over his attitude towards women. It places Clinton in the context of female pioneers like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Sally Ride, then juxtaposes those images with offensive remarks by Trump and asks "How does he make you feel?"

Vice President Joe Biden is also hitting Trump's character, saying in South Carolina Tuesday that the Republican nominee is the epitome of the abuse of power.

"This is a guy who for 1,000 reasons is unfit to be president," he said.

Biden's jab dovetails with a stark Clinton campaign ad released on Monday featuring Monique Luiz, who at the age of three played the young girl in the iconic 1964 "Daisy" ad that played on anxiety over nuclear war, to question Trump's ability to handle nuclear weapons.

"The fear of nuclear war that we had as children, I never thought our children would ever have to deal with that again. And to see that coming forward in this election is really scary," Luiz said.

Late Monday, Clinton fleshed out the theme at a rally in Ohio.

"Imagine him plunging us into a war because somebody got under his very thin skin," she said. "I hope you will think about that when you cast your vote in this election."


Challenge for Clinton campaign

The challenge for the Clinton campaign, however, is penetrating the wall of coverage the email saga appears to be driving during the closing days of the general election campaign.

Some Democrats argue that many Americans have already made up their minds about the controversy over her private email server, and anyone likely to be swayed now probably wasn't voting for her anyway.

But the issue cuts to the heart of Clinton's campaign argument — that she and not Trump is fit to be Presidept, because it allows her rival to make the case that her judgment — as revealed by the handling of potentially classified information — is not all it's cracked up to be.

A new Gallup poll released Tuesday suggested that Clinton will be pushing on an open door if she can get the attacks on Trump's fitness to lead to resonate among undecided voters.

Fifty-one percent said that Clinton had the personality and leadership qualities a president should have. But only 32% said the same of Trump.

Clinton used such perceptions to anchor her performance in three presidential debates over Trump and during her party's convention Philadelphia in July.

But deprived of such mass viewership events, it is harder for her to drive the point home in the first week of November — especially with the frenzied media coverage of the campaign end-game focusing heavily on her email furor. Trump plunged in the polls after the presidential debates, where he often came across as uninformed, angry and disrespectful to Clinton.

But his standing his recovered since. He's down just 4 points in the latest CNN Poll of Polls. Trump is also improving his position in some battleground states though still faces a steep uphill climb to amassing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

But for once, Trump seems not to be hurting himself.

Throughout their duel for the White House, he has repeatedly detonated controversies and stomped over his own campaign message to the detriment of his interests.

Deep behind Democratic lines in Michigan Monday, Trump was relentless in driving his attack that Clinton was finally being held to account for her email server.

He also painted a picture of a future Clinton administration mired in investigations, scandals and legal proceedings that would be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1990s.

"If Hillary is elected, she would be under protracted criminal investigation, likely followed by the trial of a sitting president," Trump said in Michigan. "Hey, this is just what we need. This is just what we need."

"She's going to have bigger problems than bringing your jobs back," he said.