Hillary Clinton’s blistering new assault on Donald J. Trump has mollified many Democrats alarmed about the closer-than-expected presidential race — while inflaming Republican fears that Mr. Trump’s improvisational style and skeletal campaign will prove inadequate in repelling the type of attack Mrs. Clinton unleashed on Thursday.
Mixing stark warnings that Mr. Trump would imperil America’s security with caustic personal critiques — “I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants” — Mrs. Clinton offered the first indication that she was willing to confront her unconventional opponent in the fashion many in her party believe his candidacy demands.
“I thought it was one of the most important speeches Secretary Clinton has made throughout this campaign because it drew a line that for most of this campaign has not been drawn,” said Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary, arguing that Mr. Trump had “gotten away with murder” with his incendiary proposals and statements.
Mrs. Clinton’s speech in San Diego drove home that “this is not just the fun and games of a primary, but a choice for the American people about who is going to sit in the Oval Office,” Mr. Panetta said.
Democrats across the country expressed relief on Friday that Mrs. Clinton had finally delivered a comprehensive indictment of Mr. Trump’s fitness for the presidency.
Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said there had been “widespread concern” among Senate Democrats that Mrs. Clinton was not drawing sharp enough contrasts with Mr. Trump. “This speech really did that,” he said.
Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, who was attending the Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s annual retreat on Mackinac Island with many of the state’s most influential leaders, said, “The people up here who were worried about her said she is finally finding her groove.”
For several weeks, Mrs. Clinton had tried out a version of the campaign President Obama ran against Mitt Romney in 2012, portraying Mr. Trump as a heartless corporate titan who profited off the housing crisis and avoided paying taxes. But she was receiving scant news media coverage, and Mrs. Clinton’s advisers worried that voters were not as moved by class-based attacks against someone who unapologetically boasts about his wealth.
After weeks in which Mr. Trump viciously attacked Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, over Mr. Clinton’s indiscretions, moreover, it had become clear that she needed a circuit breaker in the form of a more robust counterassault — and one that she could deliver herself, rather than relying on surrogates to deal the most forceful blows to Mr. Trump on her behalf.
Her campaign’s decision was to seek to disqualify Mr. Trump on terrain that is Mrs. Clinton’s comfort zone: foreign policy. But billing her San Diego speech on Thursday as a foreign policy address was also something of a ruse: It turned out to be an acidly funny takedown of Mr. Trump and his temperament, giving him the same sort of belittling treatment he had used on his opponents to great effect.
“There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf course deal,” Mrs. Clinton said at one point.
But as satisfying as her new line of attack was to many Democrats, as Mr. Panetta said, “The real question is going to be, ‘Where does it go from here?’”