Hillary Clinton's chief strategist refused to commit to a proposed presidential debate with Bernie Sanders in New York before the state's April 19 primary. As reported by The Hill, Clinton staffer Joel Benenson accused Sanders of "running a very negative campaign" and suggested that a New York debate might not take place unless the Vermont senator changes his "tone."
"I think the real question is what kind of campaign is Senator Sanders going to run going forward," said Benenson, the Clinton campaign's chief strategist, when asked about a potential debate by CNN's Kate Bolduan on Monday.
"This is a man who said he'd never run a negative ad ever," continued Benenson. "He's now running them. They're now planning to run more. Let's see the tone of the campaign he wants to run before we get to any other questions."
Benenson also referenced a Washington Post article published Sunday that reported the Sanders campaign would intensify its attacks on Clinton in the weeks leading up to the New York primary. As NBC News reports, the Sanders campaign's issues-first, positive tone has given way to increasingly aggressive policy critiques of Clinton as the primary campaign has worn on. In recent weeks, Sanders stump speeches have included attacks on Clinton's record on trade, campaign finance and foreign policy.
Benenson remarks come one day after Sanders called for a debate in New York during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. The Democratic National Committee lists an April debate as "TBD" on its official website as of Monday afternoon.
Asked by Bolduan about the risk Clinton faced by agreeing to a debate, Benenson responded, “There’s no risk. She’s done very well in the debates. The debates have been very good, but Senator Sanders doesn’t get to decide when we debate, particularly when he’s running a very negative campaign against us."
The Clinton campaign risks appearing disingenuous in its condemnation of Sanders' tactics — Clinton herself hasn't been shy about going after her competition during primary season, dismissing Sanders as a "single issue candidate" and aggressively criticizing his record on health care and gun control. But as the Washington Post notes, Clinton's team has become wary of attacking Sanders in recent weeks, as the former secretary of state's campaign — which maintains a healthy lead in delegates—seeks to avoid alienating Sanders backers as it consolidates Democratic support and pivots towards the general election.
According to FiveThirtyEight's weighted polling average, as of March 28, Clinton leads Sanders by over 40 points in New York, the state where Hillary Clinton twice won election as a U.S. senator. Despite what appears to be a large deficit, Sanders hopes to close the gap by running an aggressive campaign in the Empire State over the next three weeks. Winning New York's 247 delegates — the second-most of any state — would build momentum for the Sanders camp and narrow Clinton's overall delegate lead as the primary enters its home stretch.
Watch the full video of Benenson's comments below: