How will Clinton handle data breach dust-up?

Posted at 10:07 AM, Dec 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-19 13:06:55-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the first debate of the Democratic presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders dismissed concerns about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account and server while she was secretary of state. Americans, he said, were tired of talking about her "damn emails."

Will Clinton return the favor in Saturday night's debate in New Hampshire?

The disclosure on Friday that four members of Sanders' team improperly accessed voter information compiled by Clinton's campaign shook up what had been a relatively civil race. The development has the potential to transform the debate — the third of the race and the last of the year — into something far livelier.

For Clinton, the question was how forcefully to confront the Vermont senator about the matter and whether to defend the reaction of the Democratic National Committee, which cut off Sanders' access to the party's voter database after learning of the breach. Sanders' campaign said its access was restored Saturday morning.

The DNC maintains a trove of voter information. The campaigns can add to that database — information they use to target voters and anticipate what issues might motivate them.

In Clinton's case, campaign manager Robby Mook said that information included "fundamental parts of our strategy." Experts said the Sanders campaign employees who accessed it without authorization appear to have broken the law.

"Our data was stolen," Mook said. "The data that they reached in and took from our campaign is effectively the strategic road map in those states."

Sanders' campaign rejected that allegation and sued to DNC to regain access to the voter records. The suit contended the DNC's actions caused Sanders' campaign "injury and financial losses."

"It's outrageous to suggest that our campaign 'stole' any data," said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs. "What is true is the data we collected and need to run a winning campaign is now being stolen from us by a DNC dominated by Clinton people."

Early Saturday, the DNC said Sanders' campaign had complied with its request for information about the incident.

"Based on this information, we are restoring the Sanders campaign's access to the voter file, but will continue to investigate to ensure that the data that was inappropriately accessed has been deleted and is no longer in possession of the Sanders campaign," DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said in a statement.

Even before the suit, Sanders' campaign was trying for a political edge, sending a fundraising email to supporters that said the DNC had placed "its thumb on the scales in support of Hillary Clinton's campaign."

The email made no mention of the campaign's decision to fire a worker involved in the data breach or the admission from campaign manager Jeff Weaver that the worker's actions were "unacceptable."

The controversy came as Sanders struggled to draw attention to his economically focused campaign message after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, shifted the focus of the 2016 campaign to national security.

"He's got to refocus Democrats onto his issue ground," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster unaffiliated with either campaign. "It's been usurped by events."

Sanders has tried to cast himself as being above politics as usual. An independent running as a Democrat, Sanders has pledged to avoid personal attacks and dirty tricks.

Clinton aides contended that Sanders' message was undermined by the newly revealed actions of his staff. They said the information that the four Sanders workers reviewed in 25 separate searches included details on voter turnout and candidate preferences, revealing the Clinton campaign's approach in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

During the debate, Clinton could choose to play down the issue in the way that Sanders did with his dismissal of questions about Clinton's email use.

If Clinton did that, she probably would avoid alienating Sanders supporters — the passionate liberal voters she will need to win the general election should she capture the Democratic nomination.