WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton has a message for Donald Trump: keep on talking.
She’s just weeks away from wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination, and friends, aides and supporters describe a candidate who isn’t particularly rattled by what she expects will be Trump’s increasingly direct attacks on her marriage and husband’s personal indiscretions.
In fact, Clinton believes that she can turn Trump’s deeply personal assaults to her benefit, they say, particularly among suburban women who could be crucial to her hopes in the fall. Her plan is never to engage in any back-and-forth over the scandals. Instead, she’ll merely cast him as a bully and talk about policy.
“I don’t care what he says about me, but I do resent what he says about other people, other successful women, who have worked hard, who have done their part,” she told an audience in Louisville, Kentucky, this month.
Trump has made clear that nothing is off-limits. He described one of the allegations of past sexual misconduct involving Bill Clinton as a rape.
“It’s all fair,” Trump told The Associated Press last week.
He drew a distinction between his own personal history, which includes three marriages and public admissions of infidelity, with that of the former president.
“He was the president of the United States when certain things happened,” he said. “My stuff is nothing when you take a look, in terms of a comparison.”
Clinton said she wouldn’t respond to those kinds of attacks. “That’s exactly what he’s fishing for,” she told CNN.
Her supporters contend Trump’s slams on her character will motivate Democrats, particularly female voters, so long as Clinton stays focused on rising above these matters.
“I couldn’t believe it, you blame the woman for male infidelity?” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “To me it was kind of bizarre that you would visit the sins of one on the other. I don’t think there’s any woman in America that doesn’t understand that.”
Trump says his quarrel with Hillary Clinton’s character is rooted in her involvement in past efforts to discredit the women linked to her husband, while portraying herself as a champion of women’s issues.
Aides at her campaign headquarters in New York have closely studied the various strategies of the Republican primary contenders who tried — and failed — to deflect Trump’s insults. They expect far worst to be directed at Clinton.
“It is no surprise he is running his campaign from the gutter, but Hillary Clinton doesn’t care what he says about her,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.
Ed Klein, one of her most strident critics and the author of books spreading often discredited rumors about her marriage, had lunch with Trump this month.
Another influence on Trump, GOP consultant Roger Stone, is known for peddling conspiracy theories about the Clintons and recently came out with a book, “The Clintons’ War on Women,” that outlines many of the allegations Trump has hinted at already.
None of that particularly bothers Clinton, say aides, who’s fended off personal attacks for decades and has become disciplined at ignoring them. But friends say Bill Clinton has been bracing for a revision of some of the worst moments of his presidency, including his impeachment proceedings. While he’s been looking forward to going after Trump, some worry that he won’t be able to stay on message if Trump’s attacks grow even more personal.
“He’s despicable,” said Susie Buell, a longtime Clinton backer, of Trump. “This is the reality and they know it, they don’t go into it with blinders on.”
Clinton backers say she’s seen her approval ratings rise in times of trouble. Her favorability peaked in late 1998, after her husband was impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And she won over female voters in New York after Republican opponent Rick Lazio invaded her personal space during a Senate debate.
“Hillary Clinton has been through a lot of fires in her life and her career,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a Democratic group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights.
Still, Trump’s eagerness to make gender a major issue has complicated the delicate balancing act she already faces as the first woman to head a major party ticket.
Clinton has stopped explicitly mentioning her role in history and joking about being the “youngest woman president.” That’s by design: Those kinds of direct appeals weren’t working with voters.
“De-emphasize the ‘first’ talk,” advised a research report done by Emily’s List. “They already know she’d be the first woman president,” the report said of donors, “but we don’t get anything by reminding them.”
Another challenge, say some of her aides, is tuning out the sometimes conflicting advice from her vast network of friends, former aides and advisers when they offer guidance on running while female.
“If she’s just herself it’s going to be fine,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “She just needs to be with America the way she is with us.”