2020 Democrats look to retool campaigns as Biden lead widens

Democratic presidential candidates chasing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Moulton says Biden would make 'fantastic president' MORE in the polls are shifting gears as they seek to gain momentum heading into the first debate next month.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.) is trying to engage President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE in direct confrontations to command part of the news cycle and move up, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), whose campaign has struggled, is doing more media appearances.

Meanwhile, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Buttigieg unveils plan to strengthen mental health care, fight addiction MORE (D) is aiming to win over African American voters to broaden his support.

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Biden has pulled ahead from the pack in national polls, while also leading in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Biden has a roughly 25-point lead over Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (D-Mass.) and Harris and a 17-point lead on Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (I-Vt.), who often places second in the polls.

The race is closer in Iowa, with the RealClearPolitics average showing Biden up 4 points on Sanders and 12 points on third-place Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, he has a 13-point lead on Sanders and an 18-point lead on Buttigieg.

Warren has seen her numbers inch upward in recent weeks, but she's still well behind Biden.

Still, the Iowa caucuses, when the first balloting of the 2020 primary season begins, are still nine months away. And many candidates are quick to note that they are very much in the early phases of their campaigns, insisting that they are more focused on introducing themselves to voters and mapping out coherent policy proposals than jockeying for front-runner status in opinion polls.

But at the same time, the White House hopefuls are betting on standout performances in the first Democratic primary debates next month to bolster their campaigns and pitch their visions before a national audience.

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Their shifting strategies underscore a political reality: With more than 20 people vying for the party’s nomination, candidates are under more pressure than ever to compete for the votes, donations and media attention necessary to power a prolonged national campaign.

“In this business there are winds that blow, and seasons tend to change quickly,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina–based Democratic strategist. “I think people are recalibrating. They’re making adjustments and they’re trying to figure out how to stay on the tops of the hearts and minds of voters.”

O’Rourke conceded earlier this month that he needed to “do a better job” reaching national audiences after largely avoiding high-profile television appearances for most of his presidential campaign so far.

That remark, made during an appearance on MSNBC, was followed the next day by an appearance on ABC’s “The View” and later by a well-received televised town hall on CNN.

“The CNN town hall was a big success for him, the kind of national TV that I think people had been asking for,” one aide to O’Rourke told The Hill. “I think they got to see on stage that he hasn’t forgotten how to play ball. He’s getting better.”

O’Rourke has focused on expanding his national team — bringing on Jeff Berman, who ran former President Obama’s delegate operation, as his senior adviser on delegate strategy — and building out his top aides in New Hampshire.

The apparent reboot comes as he has struggled to elicit the same energy that defined his unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas).

While his presidential announcement in March was met with fanfare by supporters, he has seen his poll numbers drop into the low single digits in recent weeks and has faced criticism for lacking policy specifics.

O’Rourke’s aides and allies argue that the fundamentals of his campaign — he has said he prefers face-to-face interactions to TV appearances and large campaign rallies — remain the same.

But his reemergence on national TV underscores how much of the 2020 presidential contest has been driven by viral moments and media exposure.

For Harris, her viral moment came earlier this month with her pointed questioning of Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces Correctional officers subpoenaed in Epstein investigation: report Nadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision MORE during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, an exchange that helped the California senator reestablish her prosecutor bona fides by taking on one of the Trump administration’s highest-profile officials.

That line of questioning was reflective of a shift in strategy for Harris after struggling for months to hone her campaign message.

She has sought to court the Democratic Party’s liberal base by taking more progressive positions on issues like health care and voting rights. But some strategists say that in doing so, Harris has risked alienating more moderate voters.

Harris in recent weeks has more aggressively positioned herself as the candidate willing to take on Trump, a nod to the overwhelming desire among Democratic primary voters to pick a nominee who is capable of defeating the president in 2020.

In an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen ColbertStephen Tyrone ColbertF-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever Stephen Colbert on Trump: 'He's trying to invite us into this madness' Biden's personal grief comes to forefront amid mass shootings MORE” last week, Harris criticized Trump after he walked out of a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders on infrastructure and demanded that Democrats halt their ongoing investigations of him and his administration.

“We cannot abandon our democracy for the sake of appeasing somebody who is completely focused on his interests only,” Harris said.

Harris's more aggressive posturing against Trump, as well as her questioning of Barr, may be paying off. A Monmouth University poll released Thursday showed her tied with for second place with Sanders, at 14 percent, among early primary and caucus voters.

For Buttigieg, who saw his political stock rise quickly after entering the presidential contest as a relative unknown, the shift in campaign tactics is in part a response to criticism that he has drawn mostly white audiences on the trail.

He met earlier this month with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem and has said he plans to spend more time in South Carolina, the first state to vote in the primaries where a majority of the Democratic electorate is made up of black voters.

Adding even more weight to the vote in South Carolina is the fact that the Palmetto State is the last state to vote before Super Tuesday, when delegates from 13 states will be up for grabs.

Biden has built up a sizable lead in South Carolina. A poll released earlier this month by Change Research and The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston showed the former vice president with 46 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters in the state. Sanders came in second, with 15 percent, followed by Buttigieg, with 8 percent.

Seawright, the Democratic strategist, said that carrying the support of African American voters in South Carolina will be crucial not just to winning that primary, but to taking the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Black people will decide who our nominee will be. Anything other than making our community a priority is not smart political thinking,” Seawright said. “The ballgame is going to be in South Carolina. If you’re not making serious investments here, you may as well not even participate.”