LAS VEGAS (AP) — Hillary Clinton wants you to know that she won't need a "tour of the White House" if she wins the presidency, warning again and again that a Republican in the Oval Office would derail everything the Democrats have achieved.
Her main Democratic rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, argues that staving off a GOP victory depends on stoking voter enthusiasm by breaking with Clinton's brand of "establishment politics" — a quality he feels he is uniquely positioned to offer.
"The only way that Democrats win elections is when we have a large voter turnout," Sanders said at a Las Vegas dinner Wednesday, as his raucous supporters blasted air horns and blew into yellow vuvuzelas.
In the final weeks leading up to the first round of primary voting, the two leading Democratic candidates are urging their voters to look down the road to the general election this November, offering competing strategies for how Democrats can defy history by capturing a third consecutive White House term.
The dueling arguments are coursing through the electorate as Democrats face an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans hold a large majority in the House and a 10-seat advantage in the Senate. The GOP will be forced to defend two dozen Senate seats in 2016, including several in contentious election year swing states.
But Democrats will ultimately struggle to push their policies if Republicans win the presidency.
Clinton is trying to drive home one of her best selling points — the sense among voters that she can win — by consistently reminding audiences of her White House pedigree, from her husband's two terms as president to her role as President Barack Obama's secretary of state.
In December, 9 out of 10 Iowa voters said they believed Clinton could win the general election, while a little less than 6 in 10 said the same for Sanders, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
During a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Tuesday, Clinton offered her most blunt remarks to date about her ability to win the general election, saying voters should "think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you, their experience, their qualifications, their positions, but particularly for those of us who are Democrats, their electability."
The message was an implicit criticism of Sanders, who has drawn big crowds in Iowa and across the country but as an independent in the Senate has often been an outsider.
But should she win the primary, Clinton will need to harness the energy of enthusiastic Sanders backers to power her White House bid, leaving her reluctant to go after her opponent with real force.
When a voter in Sioux City asked Clinton to compare herself to Sanders, she touted her plans to rein in Wall Street and said she had a strong track record on issues like education and health care.
"I have a long record and I have been on the forefront of change for decades," Clinton said. "I am a progressive who likes to get things done and I will get into the White House. I don't need a tour. I know right where the Oval Office is."
The argument also allows Clinton to circumvent what polls show is one of her biggest weaknesses: Likeability. While voters say they see Clinton as competent and experienced, they generally give her lower ratings on trustworthiness and compassion.
Sanders' team has pointed to more recent Quinnipiac polling in December showing him beating Republican front-runner Donald Trump by thirteen points, compared to Clinton's seven point edge in a hypothetical matchup.
"People are going to begin to internalize that the choice of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee puts the party in a much stronger position to defeat Republicans, in terms of the race for the White House, but also in terms of the Congress and at the state level," said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver.
For Democratic voters, the GOP candidates loom large over their primary choices — particularly the prospect of a Trump administration.
Sanders drew hundreds of supporters to a rally at the Tropicana Casino Hotel, including Kevin Oakeson, a 42-year-old casino worker who has been attracted by the senator's push for improved workers' rights and a higher minimum wage. But he remains concerned about Sanders' electability.
"That's my one worry," Oakeson said. "(If) you can't do that, there's no sense in trying."
He doesn't support Clinton but he said her electability is proven. "If you look at just the appearance, she has all the right things."
Lerer reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Sally Ho in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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