20603495972_d3c672a935_kIn Saturday’s Democratic debate in Goffstown, New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton halted her steady march leftward, opting instead for a new game plan which calls for an early move toward the center. Rather than continuing her efforts to appease the relatively affluent college-educated liberals who make up the majority of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, Clinton adopted a more centrist position, staking out a tough middle ground on foreign policy, arguing for more moderate domestic policies than either Sanders or Martin O’Malley, and aiming attacks at both her Republican and Democratic opponents. Although her campaign professes to “take nothing for granted,” December 19, 2015 may go down as the date that Hillary Clinton unofficially began her general election campaign.

The context of Saturday night’s debate is important in order to understand Clinton’s choice to begin her “dance to the middle” so soon. Since the previous Democratic debate in November, polls have begun to show Clinton with increasingly massive leads over Sanders and O’Malley both nationally and in key early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina. Clinton has also been quietly laying the groundwork for a major shift toward the political center for weeks. On November 28, Hillary for America released a pro-business campaign video in which Clinton promised to be the “small business President,” committing to cutting regulations and increasing access to capital for businesses while simplifying the tax code, all relatively popular moderate proposals; she also promised to “open up new markets,” an implicit departure from her official policy of opposing major free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Clinton has also become more hawkish on foreign affairs in recent weeks, taking a strong pro-Israel stance in a speech on December 8, and delivering a speech at the University of Minnesota on December 15 calling for the Islamic State to be “destroyed, not merely contained.” These both represent implicit departures from President Obama’s more liberal—and less popular—foreign policy stances. Clinton’s tougher stance on ISIS is also a direct response to recent polls showing that 68 percent of the general public, and 66 percent of independents, think the U.S. response to ISIS has not been aggressive enough.

These subtle but significant shifts in Clinton’s campaign strategy came into full focus in Saturday night’s debate. Clinton struck a bipartisan note on national security, praising former President George W. Bush’s embrace of the Muslim American community after 9/11. This was a clear appeal to the more moderate and bipartisan general electorate rather than the Democratic base, perhaps to make up for Democrats’ lack of credibility in national polls when it comes to terrorism. Clinton also drew a contrast with the civil libertarian views of Sanders and O’Malley on government surveillance, saying “We always have to balance liberty and security, privacy and safety, but I know that law enforcement needs the tools to keep us safe,” as opposed to O’Malley’s assertion that “we should never give up our privacy … in exchange for a promise of security.”

Clinton also clearly staked out a middle-ground position between the Republicans and Sanders on the U.S. military commitment in Syria. While she emphasized her opposition to “putting tens of thousands of American troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS”—a policy supported by many Republican candidates—she also reiterated the differences between hers and Obama’s strategies for addressing ISIS, saying “I have a plan that I’ve put forward to go after ISIS. Not to contain them, but to defeat them.” Clinton went on to call for increased U.S. airstrikes and defended the limited use of American special forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Sanders, meanwhile, expressed opposition to any “unilateral American action.” Clinton’s subsequent response made her stance very clear: “If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader. There is a vacuum. And we have to lead if we’re going to be successful.”

Clinton moved toward the middle on domestic issues as well. When asked if corporate America should love Hillary Clinton, she deftly responded, “Everybody should,” to loud applause and laughter from the crowd. She then seized the opportunity to emphasize her campaign’s recent pro-business rhetoric. “I want to be a partner with the private sector … I want to do more to help incentivize and create more small businesses. So if people who are in the private sector … want to be part of once again building our economy so it works for everybody, more power to them,” Clinton said, to further applause from the audience.

This was a sharp contrast with Sanders’ vocal anti-corporate rhetoric, but a wise move from a general election perspective, given that just 26 percent of the general public thinks big business is a greater threat to the country than big government (in contrast, 64 percent say big government is a greater threat, a potential general election issue for liberal populists like Sanders and O’Malley). Clinton went on to criticize Sanders and O’Malley for their support of single-payer healthcare and tuition-free college, calling instead for fixes to Obamacare, college debt forgiveness, and expanded Pell Grants. She criticized Sanders for being fiscally irresponsible, saying of his proposals, “We’re looking at [an increase in the national debt of] $18 to $20 trillion, about a 40 percent increase in the federal budget.”

Hillary Clinton’s recent shift toward the center is a clear sign that she is confident that her strong ground game and her coalition of support among moderate Democrats and racial minorities will be enough to secure the Democratic nomination sooner rather than later. Polling data would suggest that this confidence is justified: although Sanders still holds a slim lead in New Hampshire, polls show Clinton with a commanding advantage in the other three early-voting states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada, and a large lead in national polls which could be an indicator of success on Super Tuesday. What’s more, as FiveThirtyEight statistician Nate Silver pointed out on ABC before the debate, the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucus usually climbs an average of 7 points in polls in New Hampshire, which could be enough for Clinton to erase Sanders’ lead there. Clinton’s performance in Saturday’s debate suggests that her campaign is shifting focus from appeasing the liberal Democratic base to winning over the independent voters who may determine the results of the 2016 election. With the holiday season upon us and the primary season right around the corner, it seems that November has come early for Hillary Clinton.

Click here for the full transcript of the debate.

Image Credit: Phil Roeder\Flickr

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