Clinton Returns to the Campaign Trail as Polls Tighten

Clinton Returns to the Campaign Trail as Polls Tighten
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Hillary Clinton returned to the campaign trail Thursday with a clean bill of health and Donald Trump hot on her heels in the polls.

The Democratic nominee took to North Carolina, a traditionally red state that has become increasingly competitive, after being sidelined this week for pneumonia -- a diagnosis revealed only after nearly fainting last weekend in an incident that ultimately raised questions about the transparency and the health of both candidates.

“I tried to power through it but even I had to admit that maybe a few days of rest would do me good,” Clinton told the crowd at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "It turns out, having a few days to myself was actually a gift.”

Clinton said the three days away from the campaign trail, however forced, offered her time to reflect on the state of the race and her message. In a presidential campaign that has largely existed for both candidates as a referendum on the other, Clinton sought to take a more positive approach.

But she has ground to make up. Her return comes as Trump has seized momentum in her absence, remaining largely on message in a neck-and-neck race.

A new CBS/New York Times poll released the morning of Clinton’s return found the two major party nominees tied in a four-way race (including the Libertarian and Green Party candidates), and the Democrat up just two points in a two-way contest. The survey also found an enthusiasm gap benefiting Trump. President Obama took his first solo trip on the campaign trail this week, aiming to animate his coalition. New polls this week in Florida and Ohio also show Trump gaining ground on Clinton.

As Clinton flew to Greensboro, the GOP nominee delivered an economic speech in New York, promising 25 million jobs over the next decade and setting a goal of nearly 4 percent growth, a proposal first suggested by former rival Jeb Bush. That ambitious projection is widely considered unrealistic with the current GDP hovering around 2 percent. Trump suggested tax reform and the cutting of regulations would bring his plans to fruition. Unlike most Republicans, however, he did not address the issue of entitlement reforms.

Trump spent most of the week employing diplomacy when asked about Clinton’s health and instead chose to focus his attacks on her “basket of deplorables” comment, which helped rally his supporters. But on Wednesday, the self-restraint seemed to be wearing off.

“Do you think Hillary would be able to stand up here for an hour and do this? I don't know,” he told supporters at a rally in Canton, Ohio, that night. During a visit to a Flint, Mich., church to talk about the water crisis there, Trump veered off to criticize his opponent. When the pastor intervened and asked him to remain on message, Trump obliged. But when asked about the incident in an interview with “Fox & Friends” Thursday morning, Trump said the pastor was “a nervous mess.”

He hasn’t backed away from his showman style, either. He released the results of his physical during a taping of “The Dr. Oz Show” on Wednesday, after aides originally said he wouldn’t discuss the issue on a television program.

The campaign released a report from Trump’s physician, Dr. Harold Borenstein, on Thursday, the day “The Dr. Oz” taping aired. The report shows Trump takes a prescription medication for high cholesterol and underwent a colonoscopy in 2013. Borenstein said Trump has only been hospitalized once -- for an appendectomy at the age of 11.

Clinton released a letter from her doctor on Wednesday, describing the pneumonia diagnosis and other aspects of her medical history. But the Democratic standard-bearer seems eager to put the issue behind her, especially with the all-important first presidential debate less than two weeks away.

“I didn't want to stop, I didn't want to quit campaigning,” she told reporters during a brief press conference after her Greensboro stop. Asked about the handling of the diagnosis, Clinton agreed with her campaign team that they “could have been faster.”

“But I have to say from my perspective, I thought I was going to be fine, and that there wasn't a reason to make a big fuss over it,” she continued.

Asked about the narrowing in the polls this week, Clinton argued that she has always thought the race would be close. “Those are the kinds of presidential elections we have in America,” she said.

Democrats on Capitol Hill acknowledged that a number of recent polls showed momentum for Trump, but said they weren’t hitting the panic button just yet.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who’s poised to become the next Democratic leader in the Senate, said he’s not concerned about Trump’s recent surge, both in swing states and nationally, and said Clinton just needs to "keep doing what she’s doing.”

"She’s going to win and you’ll see large percentages of those undecided votes in those states are going to go for her and not for Trump,” Schumer said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that it might be to Democrats’ benefit if Republicans say the race is tightening or if Democrats begin to hit the panic button.

“If the Republicans want to believe that this race is tightening, let them believe that. Because the more our own people see that it’s important to vote, and a tight race sort of speaks to that urgency, the more of them will turn out,” Pelosi said. “So it works to our advantage."

Still, others were slightly less bullish. Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader, said “of course” when asked if he is concerned that Trump had gained momentum, but said polls are just a snapshot of  a given moment and that he is still confident in Clinton’s candidacy.

Durbin did say Clinton could have been more transparent about her pneumonia diagnosis, but argued her lack of transparency is still not close to that of the Republican nominee.

“I would agree that she needs to be more open to help build a reputation that people trust. But I also tell you, in contrast, Trump has been more secretive than any presidential candidate in modern times and we shouldn’t let him off the hook,” Durbin said. "She can do better, but he hasn’t even started to disclose basic things like his income taxes and medical records."

Indeed, Democrats made a concerted effort Thursday to turn the conversation away from questions of Clinton’s transparency issues and back to Trump. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden tried to bring up legislation that would compel every presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns, something that every candidate has done voluntarily since the 1970s — and something Clinton did earlier this election cycle. Republican Sen. John Cornyn blocked the request, then tried to bring up legislation that would have barred Clinton from receiving classified briefings, which Wyden blocked.

In a press conference afterward, Democrats blasted Trump for his decision not to release his tax information. Sen. Barbara Boxer said, “A candidate who refuses to release his or her tax returns is hiding something.” The California lawmaker said Trump could be hiding his true income, that he’s holding money in offshore bank accounts, or that he has business ties to countries that aren’t U.S. allies, which could cause a conflict of interest with U.S. foreign policy.

Boxer also suggested it was possible that there were years when Trump had not paid any taxes at all, a charge that harkened back to 2012, when Democratic Leader Harry Reid suggested on the Senate floor -- without any evidence -- that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had paid no taxes some years.

Sen. Chris Murphy said it was becoming “increasingly plausible” that Trump was running for president to benefit his family’s financial interests, and that he could be taking foreign policy positions to help himself financially. Like Boxer, he also hinted that it was possible Trump has never paid taxes.

“It would be embarrassing to find out that Donald Trump didn’t pay any taxes,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “It would be disqualifying to find out that Donald Trump is going to make tons and tons of money by changing the U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Trump has consistently used an audit he’s facing from the IRS as his reason not to release his returns, though his son Donald Trump Jr. said Tuesday that Trump’s tax information would “create questions that would detract from his main message.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that he released his tax returns when he was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, and that he thought Trump should do the same, though, he added, “I’ll leave it to him when to do it.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s top supporters, said he wouldn’t tell the nominee to do “something he’s not required to do. It’s up to him.” Asked whether that was a political mistake given questions about transparency of the candidates, he said, “I don’t think people are concerned about that.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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