Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is on her heels having now lost seven of the past eight presidential nominating contests, thrusting the upcoming primary in New York front and center.
"This is the war to settle the score," declared Van Jones, CNN correspondent and former green jobs adviser to President Barack Obama, on Democracy Now! Wednesday. "New York City is the capital of the world and two titanic forces in the Democratic Party are clashing on the world stage in New York City."
A Brooklyn native, Sen. Bernie Sanders is no stranger to New York and after securing yet another double-digit win in Wisconsin on Tuesday, he has set his sights on a real showdown in the Empire State. Jones cautioned against "assuming" a Clinton win there, which he pointed out is her "third declared home state" after Arkansas and Illinois.
Though two weeks away, the April 19th contest is receiving a great deal of attention from media and candidates alike.
"Clinton now faces the unavoidable fact that she must win New York by a convincing margin or face a barrage of questions about whether her campaign is faltering," Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti reported Wednesday.
Nothing short of a cushioned victory in the state she represented as a senator is likely to calm persistent Democratic questions about why the front-runner is still losing states—some of them by landslide margins. While she retains a comfortable lead of roughly 250 pledged delegates even after her Wisconsin loss, the campaign’s repeated insistence that Sanders can't catch up may be accurate but it won't be enough to inspire confidence in her strength as the party nominee in November.
But New York's closed primary structure means that voters had to declare their party affiliation back in October to vote for the candidate of their choice, which could be problematic for Sanders, who does particularly well among independent voters.
In a thinly-veiled play for those Democratic votes, Clinton told Politico that her opponent is a "relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one."
In the podcast interview, which was published Wednesday, "OffMessage" host Glenn Thrush asked the former secretary of state about Sanders' ambivalence over raising money for the Democratic Party establishment, saying: "When he puts his head on the pillow at night, do you think he goes to sleep a Democrat?"
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Clinton seized on the opportunity, saying she'd "leave it to" Sanders to decide if he's a Democrat.
"There's a big difference between Democrats and Republicans," she continued, digging in. "Sen. Sanders spends a lot of time attacking my husband and attacking President Obama. You rarely hear him say anything negative about George W. Bush, who I think wrecked our economy." (Sanders has previously addressed the criticism that he has never attacked the policies of Bush).
"Not to put too fine a point on it," she added. "I don't know where he is on the spectrum."
Though Clinton has been criticized for her deep ties to the Democratic Party establishment, given the parameters of the New York primary, it may well be a strategic move to paint Sanders as a party outsider.
Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver late Tuesday accused the Clinton camp of trying to "tear the party apart."
"Don't destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy the secretary's ambitions to become president of the United States," Weaver told CNN. "Let's not denigrate each other's supporters and tear the party apart."
In recent weeks, Sanders has been sharpening the contrast between himself and Clinton on key issues for New York voters, such as fracking and minimum wage, while closing in on Clinton's lead. A Quinnipiac University poll late last month showed two candidates just 12 points apart in New York, compared with Clinton's 40-point lead in the same poll last June.
Eighteen thousand people turned out to hear Sanders speak in the Bronx last week and the progressive Working Families Party, which endorsed the Vermont senator in September, has been campaigning aggressively in New York on his behalf.
The two Democratic candidates face off next in the Wyoming caucuses on Saturday.
"The Sanders surge is a really thing," Jones added. "He's garnered victory after victory after victory."