WATERLOO, Iowa — Until Monday, when Donald J. Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Hillary Clinton could hardly keep herself from laughing at the mention of his name. “I’m sorry, I can’t help it,” she told ABC News on Sunday, letting out a giggle that made advisers squirm.
She is no longer laughing.
At a town hall here on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton delivered her most damning, direct criticism of Mr. Trump, saying that he traffics “in prejudice and paranoia,” and that his Muslim proposal was “not only shameful, it’s dangerous.”
But Mrs. Clinton also strove to recognize something stirring in the electorate that Mr. Trump had clearly tapped into. “It’s O.K., it’s O.K. to be afraid,” she said. “When bad things happen, it does cause anxiety and fear,” she added. “But then you pull yourself together and, especially, if you want to be a leader of our country, and you say:‘O.K., what are we going to do about it? How are we going to be prepared?’”
The remarks bore little resemblance to Mrs. Clinton’s previous dismissals of Mr. Trump, She had portrayed him as a reality television sideshow who voiced more extreme terms beliefs that, she contended, his more serious G.O.P. rivals shared.
But since Mr. Trump’s response to the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Mrs. Clinton and her campaign, confounded by his continued strength in the polls, have had to rethink how they handle Mr. Trump and what his candidacy, and the anger in the electorate that has fueled it, means for her chances in 2016.
Some of her own voters are giving her reason to.
Bennie Stickley, a 75-year-old in Gilbertville, Iowa, who retired from a John Deere factory, said he was supporting Mrs. Clinton but agrees with Mr. Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims. “I’m for him on that,” he said. “We shouldn’t be letting those people into the country,” he added.
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“She’s as amazed as everyone else is” by his staying power, said Edward G. Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania, who recently spoke to Mrs. Clinton about Mr. Trump.
That befuddlement played out in the 24 hours after Mr. Trump released his proposal on Monday. The Clinton campaign, caught off guard, seemed to grapple publicly with how to respond.
Mrs. Clinton alternated between tugging at the heartstrings with messages of inclusiveness and capitalizing on Mr. Trump’s comments in ways that some Democrats considered unseemly. After she quickly rejected Mr. Trump’s remarks on Twitter, a fund-raising email went out that night from a top aide, Huma Abedin, under the subject line “I’m a proud Muslim.”
The campaign released a “Love Trumps Hate” bumper sticker, and on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton published an open letter on Medium titled “No, Donald Trump, We’re Not Barring Muslims From Entering the County” that pleaded for tolerance.
But privately, campaign aides said a day later that the dust had not settled, and they were searching for how best to hit back at Mr. Trump without dismissing the heightened feelings of insecurity that he was playing upon.
By Wednesday in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton struck a more somber tone. She had intended to discuss her corporate tax proposals at the town hall, but ended up devoting much of her time to Mr. Trump.
“I’m afraid,” a voter who rushed to the rope line after the meeting told Mrs. Clinton. “People are being so vitriolic.”
Mrs. Clinton nodded sympathetically. “That’s why I called Trump out at the beginning of what I said today,” she said. “I think it’s shameful for our country to have people running around to be president of the United States, saying these things, demonizing people.”
Moments later, when a college student asked Mrs. Clinton to make a Snapchat video saying, “You’re fired, Donald Trump,” she demurred.
“I’m not going to say that,” she said, as if to do so would cross a line. Instead, she agreed to make a lighthearted, quick video for the young man that did not mention Mr. Trump.
On Thursday night, when asked about Mr. Trump in an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” Mrs. Clinton said, “You know, I have to say, Seth. I no longer think he’s funny,” adding that Mr. Trump’s latest comments had “gone way over the line.”
Mrs. Clinton is not the only Democrat struggling to settle on a strategy for responding to Mr. Trump’s campaign, the unpredictable Republican race and what Mr. Trump’s appeal says about the mood of the electorate.
Even when the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, sternly said Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims “disqualifies him from serving as president,” Mr. Earnest also called Mr. Trump a “carnival barker” and poked fun at his “fake hair.”
“The elite political community has been struggling to figure out how to deal with him because they don’t fundamentally understand the phenomenon,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama. “He’s speaking to something that they’re just getting their arms around.”
If Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats are certain that Mr. Trump’s candidacy is harming the Republican Party, they appear less sure how to respond to it.
Mr. Rendell condemned Mr. Trump’s more incendiary ideas, but added that there were parts of his message, like the need to hem in China and put a stop to currency manipulation that hurts America in trade deals, that could appeal to white working-class Democrats who are concerned about the shrinking middle class.
“A lot of what he says resonates with what you and I would call ‘reasonable, thinking people,’” Mr. Rendell said. “That’s the part that I think is important for Hillary or any Republican running, or Bernie Sanders, or anybody. That’s the part that I think is important for them to realize.”
Many of Mrs. Clinton’s advisers say they still doubt Mr. Trump will be the Republican nominee, but they have contemplated what it would mean for Mrs. Clinton, a policy wonk known for her 12-point plans to approach problems, to run against the visceral Mr. Trump, said several of those advisers who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In Washington on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, told a campaign briefing that he believed Mr. Trump would linger and be a “dominant” force, but that he could not predict whom the nominee would be, according to an attendee.
Former President Bill Clinton has been particularly intrigued by Mr. Trump’s appeal, referring to his campaign as ideal for what he dismissively calls an “Instagram election” of quick sound bites and easy responses (“Build a wall!” “Close the borders!”) to extremely complex problems, said one of these advisers with direct knowledge of Mr. Clinton’s conversations.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has tried to portray Mr. Trump as the id of the Republican Party, saying what his more measured rivals think. This week, the campaign released a “Who said it: Donald Trump or not Donald Trump?” online quiz. “When it comes to hateful rhetoric, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the Republicans running for president,” the quiz read.
That connection may not be durable with voters after Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, which some of his Republican rivals forcefully rejected.
At the same time, the threat of a homegrown terrorist attack has elevated anxieties and made Mr. Trump’s proposal appealing even to some voters who support Mrs. Clinton.
In Waterloo, Mike Russell, 60, called Mr. Trump “an idiot.” But when he was asked if he thought Mrs. Clinton had been aggressive enough in outlining her plan to defeat ISIS, Mr. Russell paused.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That last deal in California, that changes the game.”
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