Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses members of the National Rifle Association during their NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II(reuters_tickers)
By Ginger Gibson and Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Donald Trump this week took his use of sordid accusations against Democrat Hillary Clinton to levels unprecedented in modern U.S. presidential campaigns, in the latest example of the Republican's unorthodox playbook.
The presumptive Republican nominee is working to gain stronger footing and offset a big advantage Clinton is likely to have ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential election - a huge campaign war chest that she and her allies intend to use to launch a barrage of attacks against him.
Trump is using the same strategy he used repeatedly during the Republican nomination fight against rivals like Ted Cruz - making incendiary statements that U.S. television networks can't resist covering, giving him hours of free media and putting his opponents on the defensive.
The strategy may already be working.
Trump has raised more than a few eyebrows with his latest round of attacks against Clinton. He has turned history into headlines that play like a virtual reel in the 24-hour news world of cable TV and the internet.
Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said the strategy makes sense.
"Clearly, she's going to have massive amounts of money," Lewandowski told Reuters. "The difference is Mr. Trump has funded his campaign. What we’ve been able to do in this campaign cycle is to generate earned media based on Mr. Trump’s ability to be a straight talker, and genuine and authentic, and I think that’s what drives the news cycle."
Trump's latest salvos include a rape accusation against former President Bill Clinton dating to the 1970s and the suicide of an aide to the former president in 1993 - events that the campaign links to Hillary Clinton.
An online video released by Trump has various women accusing the former president of rape or unwanted sexual advances. Trump accused Hillary Clinton of helping to silence the women. The Clintons and their supporters have dismissed the charges as baseless and politically motivated.
Then, in an interview with The Washington Post, Trump suggested that the Clintons may have been involved in the 1993 death of Vince Foster, a former aide to Bill Clinton and a friend of Hillary Clinton, even though more than five investigations, including one conducted by Republican special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, concluded Foster committed suicide in a Virginia park.
Trump was alluding to theories over the years that have been circulated in tabloid publications, in the depths of the internet and in books by the Clintons' foes.
The attacks have put Clinton on her back foot.
Trump "just continues to gobble news cycle after news cycle," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who ran the Super PACs that backed Senator Ted Cruz in the primary and aggressively attacked Trump. "Clinton is spending less time campaigning about the future and more time explaining the past than she would probably like.”
The barrage puts Clinton in a bind. So far, she has opted to ignore Trump's personal attacks and her campaign has offered general pushback. But Clinton risks the negative onslaught dragging down her standing in the public and irreversibly damaging her general election hopes.
"I played a lot of hardball in my life, but I don't envy what the Clinton campaign is up against here. Trump himself has totally changed the political dynamic," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who supports Clinton. "What they can't afford to do is get in the gutter with the guy. He has absolutely no morals or scruples. Getting into the gutter with him is an absolute waste of time."
Clinton's campaign and the Super PACs supporting her won't be without funds to try to combat the attacks and launch her own. At the end of April, she had $30 million in her campaign account, compared with Trump's $2 million.
And the PAC supporting her, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, had $46 million at the end of April - a total that is likely to grow over the summer. The PAC backing Trump is just getting off the ground.
Clinton will also depend on an army of surrogates to try to combat Trump without having to respond to him herself.
Trump has already proven he can dispatch opponents without spending much money by defining them to voters through aggressive appearances on news programs.
Republican rival Jeb Bush had a more than $100 million advantage going into the primary. But Trump painted him as "low energy" and defined him as inept, a characterization Bush's money was never able to overcome.
The PACs backing Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz spent millions assailing Trump. Trump was able to leverage extensive coverage of his campaign by the media to combat their attacks while spending little money on advertising.
Trump has been proven an expert at raising attack lines that have already been settled, but insisting that questions remain. He spent years demanding that President Barack Obama produce his birth certificate, despite myriad evidence that he was born in Hawaii including government records of the president's birth in Honolulu.
For Trump, some of the attacks are targeted at young voters - those in their early 20s and 30s were too young to have been immersed in news about the scandals of the Clinton years.
"You have a whole series of the population who either (a) don’t know anything about it, or (b) weren’t paying attention at the time," Lewandowski said.
A Clinton ally said Trump is simply trying to distract attention from his own liabilities - such as refusing to release his tax returns and his own history of problems with women.
"The more he raises these outrageous and outlandish charges," said U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra, of California, a Democratic leader in the House, "the more he keeps you pedalling in a different direction."
(This story has been refiled to correct spelling of Lewandowski in 6th paragraph)
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Leslie Adler)