Big-name 2020 Democrats struggle to stand out in the Biden era

Biden's entry has overshadowed other candidates

By Maeve Reston, CNN
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Beto O'Rourke

(CNN) - As Joe Biden set out on his first 2020 campaign swing this week atop polls and swarmed by cameras, Beto O'Rourke traveled a gravel road here in Central California on an ATV, off on a fact-finding mission that included inspecting a series of irrigation canals.

While studiously taking notes in his green journal, O'Rourke fired off questions about groundwater, drinking water contaminants and drought in the Central Valley to the agriculture professor and Modesto Junior College students accompanying him. The once-buzzed about candidate, less than two months into his campaign, explained he was visiting to tap into the cutting-edge science they were exploring for water conservation and climate change. Hours earlier, O'Rourke had outlined what he described as "the most ambitious plan to confront climate change that we have ever seen."

To call attention to that plan amid the cacophony of 2020, the former Texas congressman rolled it out with the spectacular backdrop of Yosemite National Park. The park visit was a "religious experience," O'Rourke later told participants at a policy roundtable, one where he'd stood "open-jawed in awe" at the splendor.

And still, that policy announcement registered as a blip on the 2020 radar.

These are tough times for Democratic contenders like O'Rourke, the failed Texas US Senate candidate who was once the most talked-about candidate of the 2018 election. He entered the race in a burst of fanfare, complete with the full "Vanity Fair" cover treatment. But now standing in Biden's giant shadow, he is relegated to single-digit status (6%) in CNN's latest poll.

Toiling in that same category are other big-name candidates looking to get their mojo back, including the slowly-climbing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (8%), surprise contender South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7%) — who made the cover of Time Magazine this week — and California Sen. Kamala Harris (5%), who found a way to shine at a hearing this week with Attorney General William Barr. (The silver lining for all the single-digit candidates is that many Americans have trouble naming the other 17 contenders polled for CNN who registered at 2% or less).

With the splashy announcements and the feverish race for first quarter fundraising dollars behind them, they are looking to recapture a spark in this long marathon to the primaries when the Democratic National Committee debates -- the best chance for a jolt of energy -- are still more than a month away. Until then, the candidates have no choice but to keep their heads down and continue the painstaking work of winning over voters who -- even after all the emails, tweets and town halls -- still might not even know they exist.

All of these middling candidates are resorting to jaw-dropping backdrops, desperate-sounding email pleas for contributions and cleverly orchestrated moments intended to go viral.

None of the 2020 contenders have matched what has quickly become Biden's early badge of honor -- sustained fire from President Donald Trump. The President was so obsessed with a firefighters union's endorsement of Biden that he retweeted 58 tweets Wednesday morning seeking to undercut it, giving the former vice president an opportunity to play up his electability factor.

"I understand the President has been tweeting a lot about me this morning and for a while. I wonder why the hell he's doing that?" Biden quipped in Iowa City later that day. "I'm going to be an object of his attention for a while, folks."

 

The Biden reboot

 

As Biden has reset the race, the candidates have displayed varying strategies to stay in contention -- with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders most aggressively taking on Biden's potential weaknesses.

Sanders, whose support is dipping as he tenuously clings to second place with 15% of potential Democratic voters in CNN's latest poll, has sought to strengthen his position by directly criticizing Biden's record on issues ranging from his support for the Iraq War, to NAFTA and other trade deals -- a campaign strategy Sanders personally decided to pursue.

"Joe and I have very different pasts, in terms of how we have voted, and a very different vision for the future, and that is something we should be discussing," Sanders told CNN's Brooke Baldwin in an interview Tuesday.

And even Sanders appears to be looking for viral moments. On Thursday, Sanders periscoped his walk to the Senate chamber to vote on overriding Trump's veto of the resolution he championed calling for the United States to get out of the war in Yemen.

For O'Rourke, who was hazed for looking like a policy lightweight when he announced in March, his campaign reboot is intended to project a more serious, policy-focused image like the one he displayed this week as he traveled with his field notes through the friendly territory of California, where thousands of people contributed to his 2018 Texas Senate campaign.

O'Rourke's team has highlighted its struggle to keep up with Biden's fundraising strength in its emails with subject lines like "Leveling with you" and the admission that its own fundraising has slowed. Harris' team has repeatedly sent messages to prod supporters for new contributions by saying they are behind on their fundraising goals.

For the three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee — Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the latter two standing at 2% respectively in CNN's poll—Wednesday's hearing with Barr offered the opportunity for a breakout moment, similar to the ones both Harris and Klobuchar experienced during the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Harris, a former prosecutor, generated headlines and a Twitter frenzy Wednesday with her pointed questioning of the Attorney General, eliciting an admission from Barr that he had rendered a decision on whether the President obstructed justice without reviewing the underlying evidence to the Mueller report.

Moments later, Harris cited Barr's answer as grounds to call for his resignation. And a little more than an hour later, she summarized their exchange in an email to her supporters seeking contributions.

Trump then played directly into Harris' hands by describing her questioning of Barr as "nasty." Her communications director, Lily Adams, sent a strongly-worded solicitation to donors describing Trump's words as a "weird, gendered attack."

"It seems like anytime Donald Trump feels threatened by a strong woman, he lashes out with this gross, weird attack. It's the kind of sexism that makes me want to run my head through a wall. But instead of doing that, let's do something productive. I know we've asked a lot lately -- but can you step up and add a donation to Kamala's campaign today?" Adams wrote.

She continued: "Kamala is one of the most prepared, detail-oriented people I've ever met -- and she's never backed down from a tough fight. Don't you want to see her show that skill in a debate with Donald Trump?"

Booker experienced more mixed results at that same hearing as he accused Barr of normalizing unethical behavior outlined in the Mueller report. And Klobuchar tried to demonstrate the no-nonsense style that has been her trademark on the campaign trail by telling Barr that she was going to steer the discussion "out of the weeds" and then asking him to back her bipartisan legislation to protect US elections from outside influence. Barr told her he would take a look at the proposal.

 

Looking to break through

 

Other candidates like Warren and Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, have adopted the slow-and-steady approach to introducing themselves to voters -- predicting that old-fashioned shoe leather campaigning at events big and small will eventually pay off with Democratic voters.

After Warren's rough start dogged by her own bungling of the question of her heritage, the Massachusetts senator appears to be experiencing a mini-resurgence by repeatedly showing not only the depth of her policy agenda, but her ability to explain complex concepts like her tax on the ultra-rich in simple terms. She recaptured the spotlight at recent forums including CNN town hall and "She the People" forum, while continuing to drive the conversation with her impassioned argument for impeachment. On Friday, she encouraged her audiences to use the buzz-worthy student debt calculator on her website to see how their loans would be affected under her plan to wipe out that debt for many current and former students.

Castro has tried to find his niche by getting out first with the most aggressive position in the field on Trump administration conduct. He was the first to call for Barr to resign, and the first to call for Trump's impeachment after the Mueller report was released. Those moves were part of the broader strategy to be nimble and out front on issues -- hoping that he will get credit later from the Democratic electorate.

Perhaps the candidate who has had the most fun with this game of inches is New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose slogan is "Brave Wins." Whether it is dressing up with drag queens at an LGBT bar in Iowa, sledding in New Hampshire or playing beer pong with students -- she has turned light-hearted interactions into online moments that get some pick up.

For the moment, both Castro and Gillibrand remain at 1% in CNN's poll. The question for them, and all of the contenders behind Biden, is how to turn brief flashes of attention into sustained momentum. None of them seem to have mastered that art quite yet.

CNN's Dan Merica and Gregory Krieg contributed to this story.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.