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Kirsten Gillibrand: I'm close with Hillary Clinton, despite my remarks about Bill

Washington -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says her relationship with Hillary Clinton is strong and  Clinton has given her advice about her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Gillibrand, appearing in a town hall televised by CNN Tuesday night, fielded questions about her record, including policy shifts she's made on immigration and gun control, and offered an update on her long-standing relationship with Hillary and Bill Clinton.

In 2017, Gillibrand said Bill Clinton should have resigned from the presidency after his inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewsinsky came to light two decades ago.

Gillibrand said Tuesday her "fondness" and respect for Hillary Clinton are "very strong" and she continues to admire and look up to her. Gillibrand supported Clinton's 2016 Democratic presidential bid and took Clinton's U.S. Senate seat when Clinton was appointed secretary of state in 2009.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, during "We The People" Summit at Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.  on April 1, 2019 Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

"Secretary Clinton is a role model for all of us," Gillibrand said. "My views on her husband are very different. And I've said all I'm going to say about that."

In a February interview with The Associated Press, Gillibrand said she had not yet spoken to Hillary Clinton about her campaign.

Throughout the town hall, Gillibrand criticized President Trump and special interests in Washington, and called several times for publicly funded elections.

Her biggest applause came after her answers on gun control and her plan to improve public education. 

Gillibrand hoped Tuesday's town hall would give her a fresh opportunity to introduce herself to the voters and donors she'll need to ensure her campaign stays on track, according to a person familiar with the campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

The town hall came as the sprawling Democratic field continues to take shape. The first fundraising quarter just wrapped and gave an initial view of how the candidates are faring.

Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California, along with Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, posted big numbers. But Gillibrand is among the candidates who haven't yet released word on what her campaign took in. Gillibrand began her campaign with $10 million cash on hand.

The fundraising number isn't just about bragging rights. It's part of the criteria used to qualify for the first two presidential primary debates this summer. To get on the stage, a candidate must either reach 1 percent approval in three recognized polls or raise money from at least 65,000 donors across at least 20 states.

Acknowledging potential fundraising trouble, Gillibrand aides said her path to the debate stage is through her standing in polls.

There are reasons for optimism, her aides said. They said her online donors have doubled since March 17, when she officially launched her campaign. But they wouldn't disclose how many donors she has.

The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking.

Gillibrand is betting that Tuesday's town hall gives her a fundraising boost, as it did for other candidates. Buttigieg, who was virtually unknown outside his state a few months ago, said he raised $600,000 in the 24 hours following his own appearance at a CNN town hall.

Gillibrand's campaign views her candidacy in two distinct phases.

The first "exploratory" phase began in January with a focus on introducing Gillibrand to voters. She appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," quickly made her first trip to the leadoff caucus state of Iowa and held 60 events across eight states.

The second phase began with the formal launch of her campaign on March 17. She's tried to make bolder and higher-profile moves since then.

She participated in MSNBC's first town hall of the presidential season and became the first presidential candidate to release her 2018 tax returns. She pressed her rivals to follow suit.

In a video released by her campaign, she described herself as "brave," a theme that has been a cornerstone of the early days of her official bid.

She has sold herself to voters as a candidate who is able to win in Republican strongholds, saying in Concord, New Hampshire, over the weekend that she'd won her first race for Congress in a district she described as "red, red, red," and promised to do whatever she could to defeat President Trump.

"What he is creating is wrong," she said. "It is immoral. It is harmful. It is hurtful."

But she's faced setbacks through all stages of her candidacy.

Gillibrand has faced criticism over the handling of a sexual harassment claim in her Senate office that resulted in a female staffer resigning over the office's handling of her accusation against a male aide. After Politico reported that the male aide was kept on and Gillibrand's office was presented with additional allegations, the male aide was fired.

Gillibrand, who has been a champion of women and victims of sexual misconduct, has stood behind her office's response to the incident.

Last month, she officially launched her campaign with a speech in the shadow of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Manhattan and laced into him, mocking the president for the many properties that bear his name.

"He does this because he wants you to believe he's strong," she said. "He is not. Our president is a coward."

The event was billed as Gillibrand's first major speech of her campaign, with the intention of showing a sharp contrast between Gillibrand and the president. But it came mere hours before the Justice Department released the principal conclusions of the long-awaited report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and that overshadowed the speech.

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, noted that the 2020 primary field is still growing and said Gillibrand has time to make her mark on the race.

"As long as she qualifies for those debates, she will have plenty of opportunity to make her case, to rise to the top, and pull ahead," Cardona said.

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