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Trump, Clinton campaign managers hash out election at forum

Kellyanne Conway, Trump-Pence campaign manager, left, looks towards Robby Mook, Clinton-Kaine campaign manager, prior to a forum at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Kellyanne Conway, Trump-Pence campaign manager, left, looks towards Robby Mook, Clinton-Kaine campaign manager, prior to a forum at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The campaign managers for Republican President-elect Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton clashed as they offered their behind-the-scenes perspectives on the 2016 presidential contest at a forum, with Clinton's aide saying interference from the FBI's director cost her the White House.

Clinton aide Robby Mook zeroed in Thursday on letters sent in the waning days of the campaign by FBI director James Comey related to his agency's examination of Clinton's email accounts. Without those letters, Mook said, Clinton would have won.

He called the focus on Clinton's emails during the campaign one of the "most over-reported, overhyped, over-litigated stories in the history of American politics."

Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said one key tactical move that helped Trump was the decision to stop looking at national polls and instead focus on state polls, particularly in swing states.

"When I came onboard, we never did another national poll," she said during the discussion, held at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

She said a mistake made by the Clinton campaign was assuming the 2016 electorate would resemble the 2012 electorate, which gave Democratic President Barack Obama a second term, when it was closer to the 2014 midterm electorate, which handed big gains to Republicans in Congress.

She also credited Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic primary challenger, for helping "soften up" Clinton and paving the way for Trump's victory. She said political observers who predicted the race would go to Clinton "ignored the phenomenon known as Bernie Sanders."

Another key to Trump's win, Conway said, was Clinton herself.

"I said to Mr. Trump, 'You're running against one of the most joyless presidential candidates in history,'" Conway said. "'Why don't we find a way to be the happy warrior?'"

Mook also blamed Clinton's loss in part on the drip, drip, drip of apparently hacked Democratic emails.

The U.S. government has said Russia was responsible for hacking at least some of the emails released by WikiLeaks, including those from the private account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

"We cannot have foreign aggressors intervening in our elections," Mook said.

Asked about the reports of Russian-backed hacking, which Russia has dismissed, Conway said, "We just don't know it to be true."

Mook conceded that the Clinton campaign failed to perform as well as it should have among groups that were key to Obama's two victories, including suburban woman and young voters, some of whom he said were drawn to third-party candidates.

Conway essentially agreed, saying Clinton was unable to hold together the Obama coalition. She said the question wasn't whether voters were ready to elect a woman to the White House but whether they were ready to elect this particular woman.

Another Clinton failing was in presuming that people who voted Democratic before would do so again, Conway said.

But Mook said the Clinton campaign never took a win as a forgone conclusion.

"There were a lot of headwinds in this race," he said. "We were trying to make history."

There were several tense moments during the discussion, which was hosted by CNN's Jake Tapper.

Conway bristled during a question-and-answer period when someone attending the forum noted the Southern Poverty Law Center had collected reports of nearly 1,000 hate-related incidents from almost every state since the election. She said Trump has called for an end to such incidents, and she labeled the centre an "anti-Trump group."