With her lead over Sen. Bernard Sanders evaporating in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is turning to the issue of guns, hoping a spate of high-profile shootings will boost her campaign and drive a wedge between Mr. Sanders and the liberal voters he champions.
Appearing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Monday, Mrs. Clinton praised President Obama for going around Congress to try to expand background checks.
And a day earlier she collected the endorsement of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who was herself the victim of a mass shooting when a gunman attacked the outdoor town hall Ms. Giffords was holding in Tucson, Arizona.
“I’ve spent a lot of time around families that have lost kids or loved ones to gun violence, and there are just no words,” Mrs. Clinton told Ms. DeGeneres. “I was so proud of the president the other day when he said, ‘Hey, we have to do something to stop all of this gun violence. You send your first-grader to school, and you don’t expect to lose that child in a mass murder.’”
The issue of guns has dogged the Democratic campaign for months, dating back to the first debate, where Mr. Sanders, who hails from gun-friendly Vermont, was on the defensive for a 2005 vote to grant firearms manufacturers protection from lawsuits claiming they are responsible for shooting deaths.
Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were in the Senate in 2005 and voted against the measure, but Mr. Sanders, who was in the House, voted for it.
Ms. Giffords offered her endorsement to Mrs. Clinton along with her husband, Navy combat veteran and retired NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly, saying Mrs. Clinton is the only candidate in the race to truly stand up to the gun lobby.
“Most of the people running for president talk a lot about how tough they are,” Ms. Giffords said in a statement Sunday. “But most of them have shown they aren’t tough enough to stand up to gun lobbyists.”
The vote is a “difference Democratic voters in our primary can take note of,” Mrs. Clinton told CBS on “Face the Nation” Sunday.
“It’s the only industry in our country where we have given that kind of carte blanche to do whatever you want to do with no fear of legal consequences,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The White House weighed in over the last few days and appeared to be backing Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Sanders in the fight, with Mr. Obama saying in an op-ed piece last week that he wouldn’t campaign for candidates who don’t see eye to eye with him on gun control.
“I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform,” the president wrote in The New York Times, referencing the gun manufacturer liability issue.
White House officials were coy in saying whether that would exclude Mr. Sanders, but press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday they were happy to see Mr. Sanders begin to shift his position after Mr. Obama’s op-ed.
Speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program, Mr. Sanders said the liability bill was “complicated” but signaled he’d be open to changes.
“There were aspects of it that were absolutely right. There were aspects of it that were wrong. But as the secretary knows … for many weeks now, I said of course I’ll be happy to take a look at that complicated piece of legislation and deal with it,” Mr. Sanders said.
The gun issue marks a reversal of roles for the two top Democratic candidates. For most of the campaign, Mr. Sanders was the one driving the conversation, forcing Mrs. Clinton to the left as she chased after him and his dedicated liberal supporters. But on guns, it is Mrs. Clinton who is forcing the issue, along with Mr. Obama, and Mr. Sanders who is scrambling to defend himself.
“I would say that there’s about zero daylight between the president and Senator Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said Friday afternoon during a campaign press call about the New Hampshire primary, referring to gun policy.
On the campaign trail over the weekend, Mr. Sanders said the reason Mrs. Clinton was taking aim at him over gun control is because his campaign is picking up momentum.
“The polls are now showing that we have significant momentum, and we are only a few points behind Secretary Clinton,” he told a crowd of about 600 people in Marshalltown, Iowa, according to The Washington Post. “Suddenly the candidate who was ordained by the establishment to win, was the undisputed leader, suddenly finds that her position is not quite so strong. You’re going to see a lot of political discussion and a lot of attacks taking place.”
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday showed a narrowing race, with the two candidates within the margin of error in the two states that kick off the voting. In Iowa Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Sanders 48 percent to 45 percent, with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley raking in 5 percent. In New Hampshire Mr. Sanders bests Mrs. Clinton 50 percent to 46 percent, with Mr. O’Malley at 1 percent.
Mrs. Clinton is using gun control as an issue to both differentiate herself from Mr. Sanders as well as to highlight her leadership on the issue. Before the mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Mrs. Clinton said if she were president, she would use executive actions to help stem the violence.
In October Mrs. Clinton tweeted: “If Congress refuses to act to end this epidemic of gun violence, I’ll take administrative action to do so.”
Mr. Obama beat her to it, announcing a series of steps last week, including adding 200 new agents to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, urging more federal research on gun violence and proposing expanded background checks. Ms. Giffords sat in the front row.
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