BROOKLYN — Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t watch the Republican debate Thursday night — she was busy raising money and taking selfies with various members of the Kardashian clan in California.
But her staff paid close attention.
About 20 crammed in to the war room in her Brooklyn headquarters while dozens of others gathered to watch the 10 GOP contenders spar. Cheers could be heard from the assembled staff early in the exchange when Florida Senator Marco Rubio declared: “This election cannot be a resume competition!” If it is, he said, “Clinton will win!”
The press was mostly restricted to one room set up with long tables, power outlets and a large screen TV. Walls were decorated with quotes from various Republican presidential candidates praising Clinton, including kind words from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Texas governor Rick Perry and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
The Clinton press team’s intention was to provide instant response to what they anticipated would be multiple attacks on their boss. Pretty quickly, though, they became engrossed in one of the most absorbing debates in recent history.
During a fiery exchange in which Kentucky Senator Rand Paul called out New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for giving President Obama a hug, Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney, exclaimed: “This is good!”
Later Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri opined that Christie had one of the better debate performances. “He seemed the most at ease,” she said. “He seemed sort of relatable.”
Like the rest of America, the Clinton crew couldn’t get enough of Donald Trump. At one point Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook was spinning reporters when a press staffer interrupted him with important news: The commercials were over! The Donald was talking! All eyes went straight back to the TV.
Earlier Trump had said that he donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for a commitment that Bill and Hillary Clinton would attend his third wedding.
Palmieri batted down the accusation as absurd. “They’re acquaintances,” Palmieri said, describing Clinton’s relationship with Trump. “It hurt her feelings, I’m sure, to hear him suggest that he didn’t really want her there.”
Substantively, the campaign seemed most satisfied when Rubio doubled down on his position that abortions should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. “This is really good,” Mook said quietly. He and Palmieri later explained that the view is out of step with the views of most Americans.
The team didn’t take the bait on what might have been the best news for Clinton’s White House ambitions: Trump’s refusal to rule out a third party bid if he isn’t selected as the GOP nominee. Many Republican strategists — including the Fox News debate moderators — believe Trump would hand the election to Clinton should he bolt from the GOP and split the Republican vote.
Clinton’s staff didn’t necessarily agree — at least publicly. “You never know how that stuff is going to play out,” said Mook. “You have to wait and see. I’ve seen third-party candidates cut a bunch of different ways.”
Shortly before the debate started, reporters were led on a brief tour of the headquarters. The decorating scheme screamed: PRIMARY! Maps pinned to cubicles showed when various states would have their nomination contests, and which states would hold caucuses and which would select a candidate by ballot.
The staff was also clearly tracking how the Democratic National Committee members are reacting to Clinton’s candidacy: On one desk was a thick document entitled “Shepherds for Unpledged DNC Members.”
The overall feel of the evening was festive. Clinton, for once, wasn’t in the hot seat — and the campaign staff could assess the vast field of Republican contenders