WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten Republican candidates for president in 2016 will debate Thursday for first time. Spend any time listening to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton this past week, though, and it would seem like only one really matters: Jeb Bush.
As billionaire businessman Donald Trump thunders his way to the top of the summertime polls, Clinton is instead focused on the former Florida governor as one of the most likely — and potentially threatening — Republican nominees.
Clinton repeatedly slammed Bush by name on Tuesday after he questioned spending public money on women's health issues, a more direct attack after she slyly stung him last Friday by using the name of his super PAC and slogan of his campaign — Right to Rise — to paint him as setting back the cause of black Americans.
"People can't rise if they can't afford health care. They can't rise if the minimum wage is too low to live on," Clinton told the annual meeting of the National Urban League, as Bush waited in the wings to take his turn on stage.
"They can't rise if their governor makes it hard for them to get a college education and you cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote," she said.
For months, Clinton and her team have tried to keep her above the political fray. But with her approval rating sinking in several polls, they've moved to reframe the race as a choice between two different ideologies rather than a referendum on her family foundation, email usage and other controversies.
Trump's rise has complicated that effort: While Democrats generally view the carnival-like atmosphere the billionaire businessman brings to Republican field as a positive for Clinton, there is concern that his dominance has allowed other potential nominees to get a free pass on such issues.
Clinton's staff says their assessment of the Republican field fluctuates by the poll, the week — even by the day. Right now, they see Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as the most likely to win the nomination.
They plan to aggressively criticize positions taken by all ten candidates in Thursday night's debate, though the recent focus on Bush is a strategy born, in part, by opportunity.
"We think the real focal point here should be on the entire group of Republicans who will be on the stage," said Joel Benenson, Clinton's chief strategist. "Gov. Bush has just created a rather target-rich environment."
In recent weeks, Bush has had a number of stumbles, such as telling the New Hampshire Union Leader that "people need to work longer hours" in order to meet his economic goals for the country. Hours after his aside about women's health care caught fire Tuesday, his campaign issued two statements, with the latter saying Bush "misspoke" as he tried to say the federal government should re-appropriate the money it gives to Planned Parenthood.
Clinton called him out on Twitter — "You are absolutely, unequivocally wrong," she wrote — before piling on at an evening appearance in the swing-state of Colorado.
"He's got no problem giving billions of dollars away to super wealthy and powerful corporations, but I guess women's health just isn't a priority for him," Clinton said. "I would like to ask him, Gov. Bush, try telling that to the mom who caught her breast cancer early because she was able to get screening in time. Was her health not worth the money?"
Democrats acknowledge there is an advantage to a Bush nomination. Having the scion of a wealthy political family on the GOP ticket would likely negate the weariness with dynastic candidates that Clinton might face in a campaign against candidates such as Rubio or Walker.
But for the Clinton team, which has made wooing Latino votes a centerpiece of their campaign, that benefit may be outweighed by his potential strengths with that crucial group of voters. Married to a Mexican-American woman, Bush speaks fluent Spanish and has deep ties to the Hispanic community.
Bush's appearance at the Urban League meeting was aimed at furthering his outreach to minority voters, and after Clinton's on-stage critique, Bush spokesman Tim Miller tweeted, "The DNC and Hillary scramble to attack Jeb today and misrepresent his record betrays their fear of his ability to broaden GOP support."
A memo Benenson sent to reporters on Wednesday focused on immigration, the economy, women's health, and gay rights — underscoring the coalition Democrats believe will get them to the White House.
Trump, of course, sees the situation differently than either the Bush or Clinton campaign do.
"Do you notice that Hillary spews out Jeb's name as often as possible in order to give him status?" he wrote Wednesday on Twitter. "She knows Trump is her worst nightmare."
Associated Press writer Sergio Bustos contributed from Miami.
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