Clinton bypasses Dem challengers to focus attacks on Republicans

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CLAREMONT, NH - Hillary Clinton has vowed since day one that her campaign will take nothing for granted and stay focused on the Democratic primary.

Recently, however, she has been saying -- and signaling -- something different.

Clinton has stepped up her attacks on leading Republican candidates over the last two weeks, gleefully calling them out by name on issues like race, education and women's health. The posture aims to invigorate Democrats hungry for a fight with the GOP and casts the former secretary of state as a general election candidate well-positioned to take on Republicans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker.

The strategy allows Clinton to play offense without having to start intraparty bickering with Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who has drawn tens of thousands of people to events recently and is surging in most polls. It also allows her to define a potential Republican nominee early, as President Barack Obama did with Mitt Romney in 2012.

The latest example came Tuesday when Clinton called out Walker on education at a community college in Claremont, New Hampshire, labeling the Wisconsin governor as someone who "delighted in slashing the investment in higher education in his state."

Clinton said Walker enjoyed "making it more difficult for students to get scholarships or to pay off their debt, eliminating the opportunities for young people who are doctors or dentists to actually work in underserved areas in return for having their debt relieved" and "ending scholarship for poor kids."

"Most surprisingly to me," she added, was that Walker enjoyed "rejecting legislation that would have made it tax deductible for you on your income tax to deduct the amount of your loan payment. I don't know why he wants to raise taxes on students, but that is the result."

Late late month, Clinton knocked Bush just minutes before the former Florida governor and Republican candidate addressed the same audience.

"I don't think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise and then say you are for phasing out Medicare and repealing Obamacare," Clinton said, using Bush's Right to Rise super PAC name to indirectly, but clearly, hit the 2016 Republican candidate. "You cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote."

And Monday in New Hampshire, Clinton assailed Rubio, the Florida senator who many Democrats believe could be a strong challenger, over his remarks at Thursday's GOP debate that he opposes abortion in all instances.

"What Marco Rubio said has as much of an impact in terms of where the Republican Party is today as anybody else on that stage, and it is deeply troubling," Clinton said. "And it should be to the press, not just to those of us who have been doing this work for so long."

Clinton's battles with Republicans have even played out on social media.

Part of a larger strategy

But the attacks are more than just rhetoric. They signal an effort by the campaign to show Democrats -- some of whom may be tepid about supporting the former first lady or drawn by Sanders' liberal fire -- that Clinton will stand up for her party and her positions.

The fact that Clinton has called Walker, Rubio and Bush out by name is noteworthy given she has yet to mention Sanders or Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in any speeches or responses to questions about them -- despite sharing a stage with the candidates last month.

Clinton has even started to signal that she is looking past her own primary debates, another sign she is steadily urging Democrats to begin thinking of her as the party standard-bearer who has the strength to stand up to Republicans.

"I am so looking forward to debating whomever emerges from their [the GOP] process," Clinton said Monday at an event in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The refrain is something Clinton likely wouldn't have said shorty after she launched her campaign in April, when her aides and advisers went to great lengths to tamp down on talk of a Democratic coronation. At nearly every turn early in the campaign, Clinton and her advisers looked to assure voters that the campaign was not a march toward the nomination and that Clinton would "fight for every vote" in the primary.

On Tuesday, though, Clinton finished her remarks on education and Republicans by simply saying, "I am looking forward to debating on these issues."

Campaign aides feel that contrasting Clinton with Republicans is beneficial for them because the differences are stark. And have said they have to do it because most Republicans have kept a laser-like focus on Clinton.

The recent uptick has largely been tied to last week's GOP debate, which drew an astonishing 24 million viewers.

Clinton has mentioned the debate in most of her campaign stops since the 17 Republicans took the stage in two events. "Really, I admire you greatly for that," Clinton said to the New Hampshire voters on Tuesday who admitted to watching both debates.

Ahead of last week's Republican showdown, Joel Benenson, Clinton's top strategist, predicted that continual focus on Republicans, whether from Clinton or during the debate, would be "problematic" for the GOP.

"The focus on them is going to shine a spotlight on an array of issues that are not only antithetical to many Americans, but on economic issues. Their policies are horrendous," Benenson said.

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