WASHINGTON — Just in time for Saturday night’s debate, the Democratic presidential race is being jolted by another computer-related scandal.
The imbroglio over Bernie Sanders’ aides gaining unauthorized access to Hillary Clinton’s proprietary voter files — with the Democratic National Committee sharply rebuking Sanders’ camp — could make Saturday’s 8 p.m. ET debate, the third of the 2016 primary season, much more personal than two earlier bouts between the two and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The debate comes with Clinton in a dominant position after she survived House Republicans’ inquiries into her private email use during a hearing on the Benghazi attacks and Vice President Joe Biden decided not to make a late entry in the race. Sanders is fading from his summer high, struggling to broaden his appeal in a campaign increasingly focused on foreign policy, and O’Malley has failed to break out of the low single digits.
The timing of the debate seems unlikely to help Sanders, whose campaign is irked that the DNC slated it for a Saturday night, when viewership is lower than the weeknight bouts that have drawn massive audiences to the Republican debates.
Clinton, a 2-to-1 front-runner in most national polls, has largely avoided punching down at Sanders throughout the campaign, rarely mentioning him at campaign events and taking carefully calibrated swings at him on issues like gun control.
But the data breach has left Clinton with a decision: give Sanders a pass, as he did with her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, or tear into the Vermont senator over it during the debate, which takes place in New Hampshire and will air nationally on ABC.
If Clinton does attack, Sanders could try to turn his response into an effective broadside against the entire Democratic establishment — after Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, accused the DNC of tipping the scales in favor of Clinton on Friday.
Sanders’ campaign seized on a glitch in a DNC-housed program to access Hillary Clinton’s proprietary data on early-state voters this week. In response, the DNC locked Sanders out of all voter data, including information gathered by his own campaign. So Sanders retaliated with a lawsuit seeking $600,000 per day. The two sides announced a settlement in the wee hours of Saturday morning, with Sanders’ access restored.
Clinton’s campaign sent signals Friday that the daggers are out.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called Sanders’ team’s actions “incredibly disappointing” on a call with reporters, playing up the significance of what Sanders’ campaign had accessed.
“This was a very egregious breach and our data was stolen. This was not an inadvertent glimpse into our data,” Mook said.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon similarly lashed into Sanders on CNN, saying the senator’s campaign acted “like kids in a candy store and “went hogwild” downloading data.
The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, has pinned blame on the DNC for the data’s accessibility. It has fired one aide, but has also accused national Democrats of overreacting.
“The failings of one or three or four young people who have made misjudgments in campaign is not cause for them to issue a death penalty on the Sanders campaign,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Friday on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
The Clinton campaign’s criticism of Sanders’ team is a stark difference from how Sanders has handled Clinton’s use of a personal email address on a private server during her four-year tenure as America’s top diplomat.
Sanders said during the first Democratic debate that the American people are “are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails” — a line that won applause in the moment but diminished his ability to criticize Clinton on an issue that had hampered her campaign for months.
Republicans have repeatedly seized on the issue to assail the Democratic front-runner as untrustworthy, and have redoubled their criticism as the FBI reviews whether any classified information was mishandled.
But the dust-up over the DNC data breach could give Sanders new openings.
His campaign’s relationship with the party establishment has always been strained — and spats like Sanders’ criticism of the DNC’s limited debate schedule, which Clinton’s challengers view as designed to shield the front-runner, have spilled into the open.
Now, that powder keg of resentment has been ignited.
The timing of the debate could bolster Sanders’ argument. It’s the second Democratic debate to be held on a Saturday night, with the audience likely to be smaller than the viewership that would tune in on a weeknight, when Republicans have so far held their debates.
The debate also comes as the 2016 race’s focus increasingly shifts toward national security and terrorism in the wake of the attacks in Paris and California planned or inspired by ISIS.
Sanders’ campaign has focused largely on the issue of income inequality — with Sanders latching Clinton to Wall Street and influential donors.
While Clinton has maintained her large lead nationally, Sanders’ message has resonated in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — which are both whiter and more liberal than the broader Democratic electorate.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll put Clinton ahead there by just nine percentage points — with 48% to Sanders’ 39% and O’Malley’s 4% — earlier this month.
In New Hampshire, Sanders has at times led. An early December CNN/WMUR poll showed him with 50% support to Clinton’s 40% and O’Malley’s 1%.
The debate is the best opportunity for Clinton’s rivals to chip into her lead before campaigns slow for the holiday season. But one more Democratic debate is scheduled before any votes are cast in Iowa. It’s set for January 17 in South Carolina.
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