WASHINGTON — As the latest media frenzy over her e-mail server and entanglements with her family foundation got going, Hillary Clinton went on late-night television and opened a jar of pickles.
“Here, take my pulse,” she said a few minutes before that bit, offering her wrist to host Jimmy Kimmel and her first comments of any length on the rumors about health pushed by some supporters of Donald Trump, her Republican rival. “Back in October, the National Enquirer said I’d be dead in six months, so with every breath I take I feel like it’s . . . a new lease on life,” she joked.
With roughly two months to go before Election Day, Clinton’s campaign is far from flawless. Yet — as the drip, drip, drip of negative headlines about her e-mails and the Clinton Foundation continues — she is quietly finding a more comfortable rhythm on the day-to-day campaign trail.
No, she hasn’t transformed herself into a stellar stumper like Barack Obama or her husband, former president Bill Clinton. But the candidate who admits she is “not a natural politician” seems to have grown more comfortable in the role, political observers say. At times, she almost looks as if she might be — gasp — enjoying herself.
“She’s found her groove,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist.
It’s not just that Clinton seems to be having more fun, though there are those moments.
She took goofy photobooth pics with Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel during the $33,500-a-plate luncheon fund-raiser the couple held for her. She danced with Paul McCartney as Jimmy Buffett crooned “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at another fund-raiser.
A while back, she told security not to eject two shirtless fanboys from a rally “as long as they don’t take anything else off,” then took a photo with them afterward.
Beyond the purely silly, analysts say, Clinton has grown more surefooted since winning the nomination.
“She’s evolving from a decent candidate to a very good candidate,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, cofounder of the Virginia-based firm Purple Strategies. “You can see it in her performance every day.”
This new comfort of Clinton’s was evident just a few days after the pickle gag (which erupted into controversy over whether Kimmel had preloosened the jar) when she delivered a withering indictment of Trump as an unhinged bigot who traffics in conspiracy theories.
Her own ethical controversies were swirling, but Clinton even won grudging praise from some conservatives for her tone. She framed Trump’s penchant for “racially tinged rumors” and divisive comments as another reason he is unfit to be president, building on her central argument against the New York billionaire’s candidacy.
“His latest paranoid fever dream is about my health,” she said, with an indulgent smile and a little shake of her head. “And all I can say, Donald, is dream on.”
Clinton’s own team has noticed a shift. As she has gotten more natural and relaxed, Trump — the candidate who rode to prominence on his unscripted nature — has largely been reciting from a teleprompter.
Of course, she’s assiduously controlling her press interactions, limiting the opportunities for her to be knocked out of this new groove. She has not held a press conference in more than 270 days, as the Republican National Committee helpfully reminds the press corps via e-mail each day.
That could soon change, as this week she is expected to begin flying on the same plane as her traveling press corps, something she has avoided during her 2016 campaign.
Not everyone is giving her high marks.
“I don’t think she’s doing a whole lot better,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster and strategist who worked on Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, noting that everyone gets a little better with practice. “Mostly what she is is not Donald Trump. There’s so much attention on him every day. Even when she’s drowning in e-mail scandals, he’s not content to let her drown.”
Leaving the awkwardness of the primary behind seemed to help loosen Clinton up. There’s a natural tension in a primary battle when some of a candidate’s natural allies pick the other side, and a candidate must attack — but not too harshly — his or her teammates.
Clinton seemed to feel the discomfort acutely; one close aide said Clinton’s new self-assurance started in early June, when she had effectively clinched the nomination, in part because she was “excited to stop dancing on the head of a pin.”
McHenry, the GOP strategist, said Clinton overreached during the primary, trying to bend over backward to appeal to Democratic rival Bernie Sanders’ base of passionate progressives. Clinton does better with her general election approach, he said, of playing toward the middle and focusing on policy rather than emphasizing ideology.
She’s also the front-runner, which doesn’t hurt.
“Winning helps, psychologically, and almost all of the polls have her winning and winning by a healthy margin,” said Matt Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University.
Clinton’s own campaign points to her June 2 speech in San Diego as a turning point. With the Democratic nomination in sight, it was the first time she’d taken on Trump directly. She laid out what would become her central argument that the former reality TV star is temperamentally unfit to be president.
“It was the nexus of her comfort level and a mechanism for attacking him cleanly and effectively,” said a close Clinton aide. “We said to ourselves, ‘We’ve got him.’ She relished in being able to frame the choice for voters without getting in the mud.”
Trump is clearly a key ingredient in the mix of factors making Clinton seem more at ease.
“He’s given her more room to run and more room to feel comfortable on the campaign trail,” said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney. Trump is constantly on the defensive, managing his way through the latest self-inflicted controversy after another, he said.
“As a result, she’s had more space to run the kind of race she’s wanted to run,” Madden said.
There’s also a stylistic change afoot: Clinton’s not shouting anymore. She caught flack from some pundits earlier in the year for yelling during her speeches. They said it came across as phony and grating and not presidential. Those pundits then caught flack for being sexist, but some Clinton supporters quietly agreed.
“She’s speaking more like a president,” said McMahon. “And she’s having fun doing it.”