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Gillibrand tours Rust Belt with focus on Trump but diverges with white privilege discussion

2020 Democratic hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spent Thursday and Friday pitching herself to Rust Belt voters by focusing on President Trump and not her 24 Democratic challengers. But her standout moment came when she told a white voter "institutional racism is real."  

In Youngstown, Ohio, on Thursday, a white woman asked Gillibrand why Democrats talk about "white privilege" when black and white residents of the area have been devastated by job loss and the opioid crisis. The voter expressed a feeling of being left behind, the same sentiment that became an emblem of Mr. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Gillibrand took a pause, then replied that "institutional racism is real."

"It doesn't take away your pain or suffering," she said. "It's just a different issue. Your suffering is just as important as a black or brown persons suffering but to fix the problems that are happening in a black community you need far more transformational efforts that are targeted for real racism that exists every day." 

The crowd, approximately two-thirds white, gave her robust applause.

Election 2020 Kirsten Gillibrand
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hugs a supporter after her town hall meeting in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Carlos Osorio / AP

Gillibrand is hoping to push her message to working-class Americans struggling to feel supported by the government that the remedy is to replace Mr. Trump with her.

 "I'm not blaming President Trump for all the problems. What I'm saying is that he lied to [voters]," Gillibrand said in an interview with CBS News.

From Pittsburgh, to Youngstown, Ohio, to Cleveland on the first day, to the Detroit suburbs, Flint and Lansing, Michigan on Day Two, Gillibrand paid no mind to her fellow Democrats. The senator argued she would defend blue-collar, working class voters – the same group that some Democrats believe swung 2016 into Mr. Trump's hands -- in the same states Gillibrand visited.

"I really want to lift up the broken promises, the lies [Mr. Trump] told to the American people, because the truth is they might not have connected the dots yet, but when they realize he said he'd do all these things and hasn't, then they'll at least know he's not their champion. And I wanted to share my vision because I will be their champion," Gillibrand said.

If voters haven't connect "those dots" yet, will they ever? It's a risk Gillibrand is taking for a candidate who has struggled to put up a crooked number in national polls.

When asked why her focus wasn't on her primary competition, Gillibrand called other Democratic candidates "friends" and "amazing public servants."

"I really don't feel I have to compete with other Democrats," she said. "When I talked to Democrats, the number one thing they want is someone who could beat Trump."      

It's a position she believes she is uniquely able to fill. At every campaign stop, Gillibrand tells crowds how she won her 2006 election to the House of Representatives in a district that had two Republicans for every Democrat and won 18 counties won by Mr. Trump in her 2018 Senate reelection.

"I'm answering their question: What are you going to do to beat Trump? What will you do differently? How will you access the voters that went for Trump as opposed to Hillary? I'm showing them how I would do it," Gillibrand told CBS News. "This is how you do it. I'm showing them with my words, my deeds, where I spend my time, this is how you beat Trump."

But those numbers have not yet proven that voters buy what Gillibrand is trying to show them. Democrats leading the pack, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have consistently beat Mr. Trump in match-up polls while Gillibrand has failed to do so.

In last week's Washington Post/ABC News poll, 0 percent of respondents choose Gillibrand when asked which of the Democratic candidates have the best chance of defeating the president next November.

Face-to-face, Gillibrand was received well on her tour. Her largest and most energetic crowds showed up in Lansing and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The roughly 100 person crowd in Bloomfield Hills, a wealthy Detroit suburb, gave Gillibrand multiple standing ovations. Gillibrand spoke to the Oakland County residents about gun violence protection. The county supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, with the former Secretary of State beating Mr. Trump by 8 points.

The nearly 30 person crowd in working-class Youngstown, Ohio, discussed trade and job outsourcing with the senator. Youngstown is part of Ohio's northeast Mahoning County where Clinton won by three points in 2016, a near upset after President Barack Obama took the county by more than twenty-eight points in 2012.

On Friday, Gillibrand became the second presidential candidate to visit Flint, Michigan this cycle after Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro toured the city last month. Gillibrand did the same, not holding a public event, but instead surveying the city and water facilities with Flint's mayor.

On each stop of the tour Gillibrand took direct aim at Mr. Trump. Over the two days, he was only brought up once by name when a man in Bloomfield Hills asked about Congressional Democrats' handling of the Mueller investigation.

A woman in downtown Cleveland asked not about Mr. Trump, but about the senator herself.

"My question is actually a little bit more political or pragmatic. How are you going to get out there? I mean, how are you? It's great that you're speaking to thirty people in Cleveland, Ohio, but how are you going to get your name out there?" the woman asked.

"So the reason why I'm [on this tour] is because every Democrat I know wants to know, 'Who's going to beat President Trump?'" Gillibrand replied. "Watch what I do."

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