Nine months after leaving the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton sat on a stage under the life-size model of a blue whale that hangs in the American Museum of Natural History.
For a fee of $275,000, she had agreed to appear before the clients of GoldenTree Asset Management, the capstone of a lucrative speechmaking sprint through Wall Street that would earn her more than $2 million in less than seven months.
Clinton said the Dodd-Frank rules, while unpopular among some on Wall Street, were a necessary response to the financial crisis, the New York Times reported, citing one person who attended, while making clear she viewed Wall Street as a partner in securing the country's economic future, not an enemy. We have to win together, she said, not divide ourselves.
But her paid speeches are now emerging as the central line of attack in an increasingly bitter primary clash with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In Sunday's debate in South Carolina and at a series of campaign appearances in Iowa this week, Sanders has argued that Clinton is too personally beholden to Wall Street to effectively rein in the industry's excesses.
In Iowa on Wednesday, Sanders went even further, seeming to mock her sizable speaking fees as borderline bribes from a powerful industry. "You got to be really, really, really good to get $250,000 for a speech," he said.
The attacks have become one of Sanders' biggest applause lines in Iowa, where the median household earns about $52,229 a year. And Republican strategists are testing how to turn Clinton's speaking fees against her in an election defined by rising economic inequality and stagnant middle-class wages. Even some of her supporters are questioning the wisdom of accepting the fees when she knew she might run for the presidency again.
Clinton has sought to parry Sanders by highlighting her support for tighter regulation and comparing herself to President Barack Obama, who took millions of dollars in campaign contributions from Wall Street but went on to enact some of the farthest-reaching financial regulations in decades.
But the new attacks strike at what even some allies believe may be one Clinton's biggest vulnerabilities: not her positions on financial regulation, but her personal relationships with Wall Street executives, along with the millions of dollars the candidate, her husband and their family foundation have accepted in speaking fees or charitable contributions from banks, hedge funds and asset managers. Unlike Clinton, Obama has never earned speaking fees from Wall Street.
"The reason that Bernie is focusing on the speaking fees is that Hillary can't use the Obama defense," said Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor, who has supported Clinton.
In retrospect, Rendell conceded, Clinton would have been better off giving fewer such speeches.
"Although they needed money, I think that Bill was raking in enough that Hillary didn't have to do it," Rendell said. "To people who earn $200,000 in seven years, it looks ridiculous."
Together, Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have earned in excess of $125 million in speech income since leaving the White House, one-fifth of it in the past two years. Goldman Sachs alone paid Clinton $675,000 for three speeches in three different states, a fact Sanders has highlighted repeatedly.
"Goldman Sachs also provides very, very generous speaking fees to some unnamed candidates," he told voters at a winery in Carroll, Iowa, on Tuesday.
In highlighting Clinton's ties to Wall Street, Sanders is tapping into suspicion that remains potent in both parties years after the last Occupy Wall Street tents disappeared from lower Manhattan. Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has mocked hedge fund managers as "guys that shift paper around" and "get lucky." Other Republicans have likewise sought to tap into popular discontent with Wall Street, blaming the Dodd-Frank legislation for letting "the big banks get bigger and bigger and bigger," as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican presidential candidate, put it last fall.
Sanders' line of attack is now being bolstered by an unlikely ally: American Crossroads, the conservative "super PAC" advised by the prominent Republican strategist Karl Rove. In recent days, the group has run digital ads in Iowa questioning Clinton's Wall Street ties — even though several hedge fund billionaires are among the top donors to Crossroads.
"Wall Street made her a multimillionaire," the ad, titled "Hillary's Bull Market," asserts. "Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?"
On Wednesday, the group escalated its attacks, targeting Clinton's daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who in her 20s worked for a New York-based hedge fund run by a Clinton friend and campaign donor, Marc Lasry.
Hillary Clinton's time on the speaking circuit connects her to a long and bipartisan tradition of prominent former officials who commanded large fees for modest work, including Rove himself (who reportedly charges about $25,000 per appearance), and former President George W. Bush ($100,000 to $250,000). Condoleezza Rice, Clinton's predecessor as secretary of state, also preceded her as a speaker for GoldenTree, appearing at a previous investor dinner for the New York-based firm, which manages $25 billion in assets.
The contracts for such events typically include strict confidentiality agreements, meaning there are no known video recordings of Clinton's Wall Street appearances. In a now-famous interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer in 2014, Clinton said she thought giving paid speeches was "a much better thing than getting connected with any one group or company as so many people who leave public life do."
But a Crossroads official said that its polls and focus groups of voters in battleground states suggested that Clinton's speaking fee — typically around $225,000, or almost five times the median U.S. household income — could be a potent line of attack.
One poll, from June, found that when informed that the Clintons had made $25 million in speaking fees since the beginning of 2014, slightly more than half of respondents said she "does not understand" the "struggles of ordinary Americans."
"Our focus groups with swing and independent voters, especially women, responded very negatively to the contrast between Hillary's rhetoric on Wall Street and her close financial ties to the industry," said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads.
Clinton's campaign has seized on the group's intervention. Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton's communications director, said Sanders was "taking his cues" from Republicans and "using a Karl Rove attack to go after her."
Still, interviews with voters in Iowa suggest Sanders' attacks are finding an audience.
Russ Gifford, from South Sioux City, said he had always figured that the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the Clintons was beneficial to the Clintons personally and the bank institutionally, but also to Americans who benefited from a strong economy fueled by success on Wall Street.
Now, Gifford said, he is not so sure. "Bernie's calling it into question. 'Just how beneficial is it for us?' " Gifford said.