Early attacks on Clinton part of new Republican playbook, Dems warn plan could backfire

The all-out effort to knock back Hillary Clinton before a potential 2016 presidential run even materializes appears to be part of Republicans’ emerging playbook.

But while Republicans say they have to start early, considering her prominence and power in American politics, Democrats claim such a strategy has the potential to backfire.

“Obviously, Republicans fear her,” Democratic strategist Ben Tulchin told FoxNews.com. "I get that. But they have to be careful.”

With the next presidential election still more than three years away, Republicans and other Clinton critics have launched a salvo of pre-emptive strikes -- from summoning her to Capitol Hill over the fatal Libya terror attacks to offering Americans a virtual opportunity to “slap Hillary” (as part of a crude online video game).

Yet Clinton is not an ordinary politician, with arguably no other presidential candidate able to match her in name recognition and political clout.

“She’s the second-most-powerful Democrat in the country, with near universal adulation that appears unequalled and unprecedented,” argues Republican strategist Juleanna Glover.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile flatly told ABC News this week: “There is no question, if Hillary Clinton gets into the race, there will be a coronation of her.”

If a new GOP playbook indeed exists, the long-held strategy of touting candidates and party values first, and then “going negative” in the homestretch, appears to have been flipped.

Glover, who founded the Washington-based Ashcroft Group with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, said Republicans have actually been rethinking the playbook ever since the 2000 presidential election as a result of the “unprecedented nature” of the recount.

“It caused political operatives for a generation to throw out their old playbooks and forced a realization that past is not prologue,” she told FoxNews.com. “We are now in a highly motivated environment. Republican operatives are thinking creatively.”

If Clinton runs and wins the nomination, it indeed presents a unique challenge. Few Democratic candidates have entered a presidential race with such a deep-rooted political machine behind them. Even the leaders of the Republican Party acknowledged a change in strategy on Wednesday.

“What we’re doing is a fundamental shift,” Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer told MSNBC while making no apologies about the Clinton-centric start to the group’s annual summer meetings this year in Boston.

The RNC plans to continue its protest over CNN and NBC productions -- a Hillary-themed documentary and miniseries -- that Republicans claim will promote Clinton. The group will have a daily “Will the Hillary Films Include …” press release through Friday, when RNC members vote on whether to boycott any 2016 primary debates the two networks might host unless they nix the productions.

Spicer also said the shift includes bolstering field operations and digital-outreach efforts.

Capitol Hill Republicans appeared to zero in on Clinton even before she stepped down as secretary of state, insisting she testify about the September 2012 terror attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed. Republicans show no signs of dropping that course of action, with potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul telling Fox News on Tuesday that Clinton “needs to be deposed again.”

Democrats appear convinced the Republicans’ efforts are a clear attempt to tarnish Clinton.

“No doubt,” said Tulchin, president of San Francisco-based Tulchin Research. “And it’s a way to go after President Obama. That's a 2-for-1 deal for the GOP that is rabidly anti-Obama and anti-Clinton.”

Their efforts come at the same time as Republicans criticize Clinton for not speaking out against fellow Democrats San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and New York mayoral candidate and former Rep. Anthony Weiner for their inappropriate conduct toward women.

In addition, political groups are forming to raise money against Clinton and trying to influence potential voters with Internet videos, emails and even online video games.

Among the first this year was Stop Hillary 2016 by America Rising PAC, which is led by Matt Rhodes, the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign manager. Another, the Stop Hillary PAC, calls Clinton “the liberal standard bearer” and has the stated mission of ensuring “Clinton never becomes President of the United States.”

The most aggressive among them appears to be the super PAC known as the Hillary Project, which recently posted an online, video-game page that includes the re-release of a game allowing users to "slap" a digital likeness of Clinton.

Republican strategist Tyler Harber agrees the “organized movement” reflects Clinton’s strength among Democrats and independents, but argues it also shows the power of the next generation of super PAC politics.

“Citizens can now form advocacy groups that can focus on specific candidates or races without interference or approval of the party,” Harber, a partner in Washington-based Harcom Strategies International, told FoxNews.com “This has added a new dynamic to campaigns against candidates that are perceived to be strong months or years in advance of the actual race.  … But it remains to be seen if Clinton’s budding presidential race can be killed by a thousand cuts from small, uncoordinated organizations.”

Tulchin argues the attacks will only help Clinton, already a powerful fundraiser, because supporters will put up money to defend her in the media. Tulchin argues the early attacks will likely weaken anything Republicans try in the general election, when it might matter most.

“What doesn’t kill you now makes you stronger,” he said.

If Tulchin and Glover agree on one thing about the pre-emptive Clinton strikes, it’s that Republicans have launched them amid no clear Republican candidate to tout. Clinton is the evident front-runner in the Democrats' field of potential candidates, but it's too early for Republicans to have a clear favorite.

“Republicans have a lot of sorting out to do,” Tulchin said.

Glover allows that Republicans are indeed at a clear disadvantage because they have “no self-evident spokesman” to champion at this point in the cycle.

“Still, we’ll take a shot at any opening we can,” she said.