CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton avoided any mention of her primary opponents in the first Democratic face-off of the 2016 presidential campaign, opting instead to focus her fire on an expanding field of would-be Republican contenders.
All five Democratic primary candidates were on the program for the Friday fundraiser for the Iowa state party, creating an opportunity for Clinton to confront her challengers before more than 1,300 influential party activists in the crucial caucus state.
Instead, she explained her White House bid as a "deeply personal" quest, vowing she would never let Republicans "rip away the progress" made during the Obama administration. In a fiery address, she slammed the economic policy of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, joked that Donald Trump is "finally a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine," and attacked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for targeting union power.
"Trickle-down economics has to be one of the worst ideas of the 1980s," Clinton said, evoking Republican policy from the Reagan era. "It is right up there with New Coke, shoulder pads and big hair. ... We are not going back to that."
The dinnertime event came as the Democratic primary fight — long assumed to be little more than a coronation of Clinton — appeared to be heating up into a slightly more serious contest.
In recent weeks, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has risen in the polls and packed arenas with voters eager to hear the message of the self-described socialist who's become Clinton's chief rival. So far, he's refused to criticize Clinton directly, though he edged closer to an attack Friday, questioning whether she would back the kind of tough regulation on Wall Street that's becoming a rallying call for liberals.
"You'll have to ask Hillary Clinton her views on whether we should break up these large financial institutions," he said, during an afternoon appearance in Cedar Rapids. "I do."
The Clinton campaign has signaled that it considers Sanders to be a legitimate challenger who will be running for the long haul, noting the $15.2 million he's raised, largely from small donors, in the first three months of the race. They believe he will find a measure of support in Iowa, where the caucus system typically turns out the most passionate voters, and New Hampshire, given Sanders' many years representing neighboring Vermont in Congress.
On Friday, Clinton's campaign said it bought $7.7 million worth of television advertising time in early voting states, its first ad buy for the 2016 contest. In Iowa, the campaign paid $3.6 million for time in all eight media markets that serve the state. An additional $4.1 million of airtime was purchased in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary.
But so far the Clinton team has resisted any direct engagement with Sanders, fearing such an exchange might alienate the activists and small-dollar donors who will form the base of support in the general election if Clinton should win the nomination.
"You can see that Democrats are united, we are energized, and we are ready to win this election," Clinton said, opening her remarks before a cheering audience.
Besides Sanders and Clinton, the forum featured former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Clinton wasn't the only candidate who shied away from attacks on fellow members of the Democratic party.
Even Chafee, who opened his quixotic self-fueled bid for the White House with attacks on Clinton's support for the war in Iraq, now opted against targeting the frontrunner.
"We have a choice in 2016, prosperity through peace or endless war," he said. "We need to reject once and for all the belligerent advocates of conflict."
Unlike her rivals, Clinton has already built a vast campaign infrastructure, run from a multistory headquarters in New York City, with hundreds of staffers across the country.
Sanders said he has "no illusions" about her political clout.
"We are going to be outspent in this campaign, but I think people all over this country are responding to a very simple message and that is that it is not acceptable that the middle class is continuing to disappear," he said.
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