NEW YORK – Hillary Clinton on Wednesday kicked off New York’s most significant Democratic presidential primary race in nearly three decades, taking shots at her rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as at Republican front-runner Donald Trump during a fiery speech at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater.
The speech revealed a candidate with one eye on New York’s April 19 primary – where Clinton hopes to widen her delegate lead over Sanders in a state where she served as U.S. senator – and one eye on the general election, where she might well face off against Trump, the bombastic New York billionaire who is leading the Republican race.
Sanders’ call for government-run health care, free tuition at public universities and other left-leaning measures has won him widespread support, but the former secretary of state warned her friendly audience of several hundred that those are nothing more than ideas.
“When any candidate comes before you, that candidate owes it to you to be clear about how we’re actually going to deliver,” she said. “But some of his ideas won’t pass. Others just won’t work because the numbers don’t add up. And that means people aren’t going to get the help that they need and deserve, and that’s what this is supposed to be about.”
But Clinton reserved her harshest rhetoric for Trump.
“He plays coy with white supremacists. He says demeaning and degrading things about women,” Clinton said.
Noting that Trump has proposed using torture in interrogations and expanding the use of nuclear weapons to other countries, Clinton said of Trump: “Loose cannons tend to misfire, and in a dangerous world, that’s not a gamble we can afford.”
Clinton’s comments drew cheers from the crowd, including many longtime Clinton volunteers in campaign garb, in the historic theater made famous by a host of African-American performers from Billie Holiday to James Brown to D’Angelo.
The festive campaign scene is likely to be repeated, by different people in different garb, as Brooklyn native Sanders brings his campaign to a park in the Bronx on Thursday night.
And it’s a scene that’s likely to be repeated across the state as Clinton and Sanders wage a fight for New York’s 291 Democratic delegates. Clinton already is planning to visit Westchester County on Thursday and Syracuse on Friday, and both candidates are expected to make other stops across the state, including, quite likely, in Buffalo.
It’s an intense race driven by the delegate math, which shows Clinton with 1,243 of the 2,383 delegates needed for the nomination. Sanders trails with 980.
This is the first time the New York Democratic primary has played such a significant role since 1988, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson were fighting for the nomination, said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is unaligned with either current campaign.
“It’s as if New York suddenly woke up,” he said.
What’s more, it’s going to be a statewide race, given that New York allocates its delegates proportionately by congressional district.
“We’re taking nothing for granted,” said the Clinton campaign’s statewide spokesman, Harrell Kirstein. “We’re going to be working hard in communities across the state.”
But so is the Sanders campaign, said spokesman Karthik Ganapathy.
After the Wisconsin primary Tuesday and the Wyoming caucuses April 9, “all eyes are going to be on New York,” Ganapathy said. “Sen. Sanders is committed to competing here. He understands that New York is critical to his campaign.”
Clinton leads the latest RealClearPolitics.com average of polls in New York with 63 percent, compared with 28.5 percent for Sanders. That’s no surprise, given that Clinton lives in New York and that the state has a substantial share of minority voters, who have tended Clinton’s way throughout the primary season.
Still, Sheinkopf noted, Sanders has one advantage in the state: the support of the Working Families Party, which has a record of making sure left-leaning voters go to the polls.
But Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a longtime Clinton supporter, said Clinton has an unmatchable advantage: her record as a U.S. senator serving the state for eight years.
Noting Clinton’s involvement on issues ranging from the widening of Route 20 in the Town of Hamburg to landing funding for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Hochul said: “She knows how to deliver.”
Given that Clinton left the Senate in early 2009, though, “perhaps people need to be reminded,” Hochul added.
Clinton did plenty of reminding in her speech at the Apollo, recalling her work to rebuild New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, and to pass legislation giving health benefits to those with long-lasting medical problems from the aftermath of the devastation at ground zero.
She also stressed her longtime relationship with Harlem, where her husband, Bill Clinton, established his office after leaving the presidency in 2001.
“We’re going to stand up for the values that make New York and make America great,” Clinton said. “Don’t ever forget. This is the greatest country on earth, and we’re going to fight for it.”
Several voters in the diverse but older crowd cited Clinton’s experience – as first lady, senator and secretary of state – as the reason they are voting for her.
Kiara Balliram, 29, of Ramsey, N.J., said she has admired Clinton since she served as first lady during her husband’s two terms as president.
“People are calling her the establishment candidate, but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing,” Balliram said. “She has experience and can work across the aisle. I don’t think Bernie Sanders can do that.”
Several voters criticized Sanders, with his emphasis on income inquality, for focusing so much on reforming Wall Street and for proposing difficult-to-achieve goals such as free college tuition.
“He is a very good man, but what he is proposing is not reality,” said the Rev. Biemeni do Manon, 63, of Brooklyn. “He’s just talking about Wall Street, Wall Street, Wall Street. Hillary is talking about every issue and has a plan for every issue.”