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Michael Avenatti's actions on potential presidential run speak louder than his words

CNN logo CNN 8/20/2018 By Sara Sidner and Dan Merica, CNN
a man wearing a suit and tie © CNN

Michael Avenatti, the boisterous lawyer who has risen to national fame in recent months by publicly pestering Donald Trump, will continue his public flirtations with running for President in 2020 by headlining two more Democratic Party events this weekend, sources tell CNN.

Avenatti's near constant presence at Democratic events over the last two weeks has caused some Democrats to reconsider their belief that the lawyer's run is a publicity stunt aimed at annoying the President.

But if he's challenged, he's been quick to shoot back even if it's a Democrat.

On Saturday, Avenatti spoke at the Hillsborough County Democrats' Kennedy King Dinner in Florida.

"It was a great event. The reception was flattering and the people are energized." Avenatti told CNN.

After each speech, he has been asked to speak at more Democratic functions. He will follow up that appearance on Sunday -- after an early morning flight -- by appearing at "Hillsborough County Democrat's Summer Picnic" in New Hampshire, a crucial state for presidential contenders.

Avenatti has said he is attending the events to talk to voters and listen to their concerns, but his actions speak louder than his words and Democrats close to the lawyer believe he is now seriously considering a 2020 run. Avenatti is shy about little, including the reasons behind this latest trip, his fifth in two weeks.

"Obviously, New Hampshire is the second state that ultimately picks a Democratic nominee. In the event I were to run, it's important to be there," he told CNN.

Avenatti has made two trips to Ohio in as many weeks, where he met with David Betras, the chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, and had dinner with Rep. Tim Ryan, another possible 2020 Democratic contender who represents Youngstown.

"I think he is a phenomenal guy and I have gotten to know him a bit in the last week. We went to dinner last week, he was in Youngstown and I really like him," Ryan told CNN after commending Avenatti's work against Trump over the last few months.

The lawyer also made a trip to meet with Democratic officials in Pennsylvania before traveling to Iowa for the state fair, followed by a speaking slot at the 15th Annual Wing Ding fundraiser in Clear Lake, Iowa, where his fierce rhetoric was met with applause.

"When they go low, I say, we hit harder," he said to a crowd of die-hard Iowa Democrats, a play on a phrase made famous by then-first lady Michelle Obama during the 2016 campaign in which her advice was to "go high."

The Wing Ding has long been a fundraiser where Democratic presidential hopefuls have tested their message with the kind of Iowa Democrats who make up the backbone of any presidential run. Hosted in the Surf Ballroom, the site of Buddy Holly's last performance before his plane crashed nearby on "The Day The Music Died," it is a quintessential Iowa event. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both spoke at the event as candidate in 2015.

Maryland Democratic Rep. John Delaney has already announced his 2020 presidential bid. On Friday, he took a swipe at Avenatti the same day Avenatti headlined a high-profile Florida fundraiser, calling a local Iowa newspaper's story written about the congressman "a good story about what's actually happening in Iowa - not a story the national media would write because they are too busy chasing the latest cable news circus act."

Avenatti responded, albeit indirectly, via Twitter.

"New rule - any Dem candidate for president that whines about not getting enough press coverage or about other candidates getting too much coverage, should be immediately eliminated. We cannot be a party of whiners and hope to win what we need to win. #Basta."

California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, who is mulling a 2020 presidential run, also took a shot at Avenatti in Iowa last week, saying that he thinks Avenatti is "an effective lawyer for his client. But I think we also need experience."

After a Twitter user attempted to defend Swalwell as "one of the good ones," Avenatti told them, "Get your facts straight before weighing in please." Avenatti tells CNN the tweet wasn't directed at Swalwell.

Avenatti is not necessarily new to politics.

"He lit the fire for me..."

Avenatti says his interest in politics began in high school in the late 1980s.

"I had a history teacher who was a former Vietnam veteran who had served multiple tours on the ground in Vietnam who was very passionate about politics," he said. "He lit the fire for me as it relates to politics."

He eventually started working on campaigns, two at the same time, he says.

"I worked on two campaigns at the same time: Congressman Dick Gephardt's and a county executive race for George 'Buzz' Westfall," he said.

He says he did everything from media relations to opposition research for more than 150 campaigns in 42 states, 90 percent of which was for Democrats. Then he says he walked away a bit disillusioned at having been exposed to the underbelly of politics.

Now he's thinking about jumping back into politics with fresh eyes after decades of work as an attorney, one that ended up suing the President on behalf of a porn star. His reason for his renewed fire for politics is simple: President Donald Trump.

Avenatti's mantra so far is to fight fire with fire. He is convinced that whoever runs against Trump has to do that or they won't have a chance.

"What I mean is that the Democratic Party has generally been a party of pacifists," he said. "If you look at the '88 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis got his butt kicked by Lee Atwater (George H. W. Bush's campaign manager at the time) partly due to an attack ad involving a man named Willie Horton.

"Dukakis could have fought back, but he did not want to engage in a negative campaign and suffered the consequences for it."

He says there is no room for anything but a fight in 2020, and that if he runs, that is exactly what he will do.

CNN's Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.

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