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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

This week is all about optics for candidates

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during Democratic

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during Democratic primary town hall sponsored by CNN, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Derry, N.H. Photo Credit: AP

For Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, this week is largely about optics.
There was little new information about policies or positions either could impart at last night’s town hall in Derry, New Hampshire.
For Sanders, the senator from neighboring Vermont, that meant redoubling efforts to convince skeptical voters he’s not some raving revolutionary seeking to upend their lives. And he largely did that with probably his best answer about whether he would raise their taxes to pay for his universal health care plan. He would, but that would be dwarfed by the savings from not having to pay health insurance premiums.
For Clinton, it meant explaining why someone who has been an icon for many women is not being embraced by the young women she wants to reach. She admitted she has work to do there, but expressed her confidence that young women will support her when they realize how many of her policies will benefit them. “They don’t have to be for me,” she said, “I’m going to be for them.”
Her other challenge, as it always is, was to project warmth and personality. And she did that in the evening’s best moment, when she answered a rabbi’s question about balancing ambition and humility. She acknowledged she struggles with that every day, and finished by invoking a lesson learned: “Practice the discipline of gratitude.” It was powerful and refreshing because it peeled away some of her armor in a way that was not manufactured.
Both Sanders and Clinton had their problems, of course, because there are some things for which they have no good answers — Sanders on foreign policy and whether he is promulgating a fantasy in saying he can get his agenda through a hostile Republican-dominated Congress. That, he said, depends on his popular uprising. “Change in my view,” he said, “always comes from the ground up.”
Clinton’s problems were her Iraq war vote and her deep Wall Street ties, the latter providing the evening’s most cringe-worthy moment. Asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper whether she had to get paid $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, Clinton responded breezily, “I don’t know, that’s what they offered.” Then she essentially said that giving speeches for big bucks is what former secretaries of state do, adding that she didn’t know then that she’d be running for president. Which makes her a club of one.
Both Sanders and Clinton made sure that voters understood the bigger optics that they see looming over this primary season — their agreement that Republicans cannot be allowed to retake the White House. Sanders attacked Donald Trump in particular while Clinton went after the GOP field, saying, “I’m very proud of the campaign Senator Sanders and I are running ... We’re contrasting on issues. The Republicans are contrasting on insults.”
All in all, it was a quietly interesting evening and more evidence that the town hall format is productive in the way it invites thoughtful contemplation and allows voters to see the big frames of the choice that faces them.
And so they move on to tonight’s debate, face-to-face on the same stage at the same time.
Talk about optics.