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Dozens of Democrats eyeing 2020 run, but bruising battles may lie ahead

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, the 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, makes his concession speech at his election night party in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Few, if any, Democrats are shedding a tear over attorney Michael Avenatti’s announcement Tuesday that he will not run for president in 2020, but the party still faces the daunting task of winnowing down dozens of aspiring chief executives to select the one best positioned to drive Donald Trump out of the White House.

"I do not make this decision lightly — I make it out of respect for my family," Avenatti said in a statement posted on Twitter. “But for their concerns, I would run.”

The attorney earned some good will on the left earlier this year for his representation of porn actress and alleged former Trump mistress Stormy Daniels, but he squandered much of it by inserting himself into the fight against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in September. Losses in court and an arrest for alleged domestic violence piled on additional doubts about his viability.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is also bowing out of the 2020 guessing game, according to Politico. Patrick, who has close ties to former President Barack Obama, is expected to announce soon that he has decided not to run.

Still, the field of Democrats at least considering a run keeps growing. As Avenatti and Patrick back out, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Michael Bennet are stepping in. Inslee told Rolling Stone he is open to a run that would focus on climate change as a defining issue, and Colorado Public Radio reported Bennet is “seriously” thinking about it.

Inslee and Bennet join a cavalcade of current and former senators, House members, governors, and mayors angling to take on Trump in 2020. Few prominent Democrats have explicitly ruled out the possibility with just under two years until Election Day.

A relatively short list of possible contenders includes: Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Sherrod Brown, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, philanthropist Tom Steyer, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Some are just testing the water, but others are reportedly interviewing potential staffers and lining up donors. Several Democrats have indicated they will decide whether to run in the next few months, so many questions could be answered by early spring, but speculation will likely continue well beyond that until a clear frontrunner is established.

Biden declared Monday that he is “the most qualified person in the country to be president” and dismissed many of his possible weaknesses, joking that his occasional verbal fumbles pale in comparison to President Trump’s constant misstatements.

"I am a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can't tell the truth," Biden said while promoting his book, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” at the University of Montana.

Sanders continues to excite some progressives and infuriate others, laying out his vision for the future in a new book titled “Where We Go from Here.” In a speech last week, he took credit for mainstreaming ideas like raising the minimum wage and universal single-payer health care.

Qualified though they may be, Biden and Sanders are also very old. Experts say they may not be best positioned to represent a party pushing for generational change.

“When it comes down to it, are the Democrats going to vote for an old white guy? I don’t know that they’re in the mood to do that,” said Michael Cohen, founder and CEO of the Cohen Research Group and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

Warren delivered what was billed as a major foreign policy address at American University last week, drawing praise from the left and scorn from the right. Booker gave a passionate speech on criminal justice reform at a civil rights conference Tuesday, and he is one of several Democrats who have been spending conspicuous amounts of time in Iowa lately.

You may also be surprised to learn there are already three Democrats officially running for president. That is probably not a great sign for their campaigns.

Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., has been the most aggressive candidate, declaring his run in July 2017 and spending much of the last year in Iowa. After losing a House race last month, West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda announced he will now seek the presidential nomination. Businessman Andrew Yang filed campaign paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in November 2017, and he was selected to deliver a keynote speech at a major Democratic fundraiser in August.

As is often the case in wide-open primaries, early polls have favored candidates with the strongest national name recognition. Biden and Sanders have often emerged as the most popular choices among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, but nobody is polling better than about 25 percent and many respondents remain undecided.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, fresh off a failed Senate campaign against Republican Ted Cruz, vaulted into third place in the latest Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll with seven percent of the vote, beating out more experienced figures like Booker, Harris, and Warren. O’Rourke met with former President Obama a few weeks ago, and several Obama administration alumni have publicly encouraged him to run.

When pollsters added Hillary Clinton to the list of options, she came in third and pushed O’Rourke down to fourth place. Although she and her husband recently launched a national speaking tour, Clinton has maintained she has no intention of running for president again.

Democratic officials are already trepidatiously eyeing the first primary debates and trying to figure out how to manage what could be 20+ candidates. According to The Washington Post, the Democratic National Committee has already held more than 40 meetings to prepare for the 2020 debates and is focused on avoiding mistakes both parties made in 2016.

While party leadership worked closely with eventual nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign on planning and limiting the number of debates, officials intend to coordinate with all the candidates this time around. Also, unlike the Republicans who broke up their early debates into a main event and a sort of “kiddie table” undercard bout in 2016, Democrats hope to get everyone on stage at once.

“Americans need to see a leader who is part medicine man, or woman, to heal the deep divides in our country courtesy of Donald Trump, part patriotic hero who unifies us in the face of threats to allegiance to the rule of law—undermined by Trump—and part visionary who inspires everyday people to believe in America again,” said Hamza Khan, a Maryland-based Democratic strategist and founder of the Pluralism Project. “That’s a tall order, but luckily the Democrats are slowly building a bench to deliver just that.”

Drawing up a 2020 gameplan at this point is complicated, given the countless variables involved. The health of the economy will inevitably be a major factor for voters, and investors have begun to see warning signs of a possible recession. Trump’s own behavior is also unpredictable, and an errant tweet or offhand rally comment could upend any Democratic strategy for days at a time.

“On some level, the story of 2020 is yet to be written,” Cohen said, pointing to collapse of President George H.W. Bush’s popularity between the end of the Gulf War and the 1992 election.

Democrats’ success in the midterm elections last month offers some guidance on how to win in the age of Trump, but tactics that work in local House races may prove difficult to scale up to a national campaign.

“For the first time in a long time, Democrats tattooed into their DNA the idea that America’s congressional elections are not national, but hundreds of local elections,” Khan said. “The focus wasn’t on a national party bashing Trump. It was on local candidates nudging reminders that our republic is under attack, and that they can elect individuals to Congress to hold Trump accountable, while fixing everyday problems individuals back home face.”

Staying on message and appealing to independents despite whatever drama Trump is creating appears to have worked for many candidates.

“In Iowa, two women who campaigned smart and did not go off the track on their district voter values showed how you can win back independents and get great Democrat turnout,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University and co-author of “American Government and Politics Today.” “I think a candidate can cobble together the old coalition and mobilize voters in the cities, suburbs, women, young voters, and voters who have been hurt by Trump and GOP policies, including farmers who are hurting from trade wars.”

Building that coalition could prove difficult if the party’s base gravitates toward an extremely liberal candidate in the primaries. The midterms confirmed there is a lot of energy on the left, but Trump is certain to use the very large megaphone of the presidency to galvanize his base as well.

“An incumbent president is not to be underestimated and the Democrats do have an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot if they nominate the wrong person,” Cohen said.

Changes to the Democratic primary schedule could alter the dynamics of the nominating contest, with states like California and Texas that are rich with delegates but expensive to campaign in moving up their elections. Less prominent and less well-funded candidates will need to distinguish themselves early or risk getting buried.

“You really have to come out of the gate and make a big splash in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Cohen said.

What he lacks in national media attention, Rep. Delaney is trying to make up for with hustle and handshakes, crisscrossing Iowa to meet voters in every county. Though he still polls at barely one percent, Khan said Delaney is taking the right approach for a lesser-known candidate seeking to distinguish himself from the crowd.

“Do what Delaney is doing,” Khan said. “Focus efforts on genuinely connecting with voters and addressing their problems. Being authentic counts for something in politics again. That’s something John has always done really well.”

By barnstorming the state more than a year before the caucus, though, Schmidt warned Delaney is in danger of peaking too early and being forgotten.

“Of course, surprises can happen but with a huge field of wannabes, he does not seem like the most likely,” he said.

When sizing up the 2020 Democratic field, it is worth keeping in mind that at this point in 2014, Donald Trump was a reality show host and occasional “Fox & Friends” guest who nobody in the Republican establishment took remotely seriously. In late 2006, Barack Obama was a first-term senator who had given one well-received nationally-televised convention speech.

“As Trump and Obama showed us, it’s only after the first round of debates and then Iowa, New Hampshire and the California and Super Tuesday results that the frontrunner will consolidate,” Schmidt said. “Maybe in 2020 we will have another 2008 with the Democratic delegate champion not known until after Guam and Puerto Rico primaries.”

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