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'Staring contest': Trump's vulnerable, but 2020 Dems off to surprisingly slow start in early states

NBC News logo NBC News 12/26/2018 Beth Fouhy
Beto O'Rourke, Joe Biden, Rupert Murdoch are posing for a picture: Beto O'Rourke, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders © NBC Photo Illustration Beto O'Rourke, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

In Iowa and New Hampshire, the phone calls from likely 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are coming in fast.

Heavyweights like California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren looking for office space, staff and support from local leaders, while lesser known hopefuls are eyeing visits to boost their visibility in the key early contest states.

But with 2019 just days away, the looming contests in Iowa (caucus date now set for Feb. 3, 2020) and New Hampshire (primary date Feb. 11, 2020) have also been oddly static. Even as more than two dozen Democrats are considering a run for their party's nomination, no major candidate has signaled definite plans to jump in, die-hard activists have been slow to commit any potential contenders and donors are keeping their checkbooks closed — for now.

Complicating matters further, the so-called "three B's" who have topped several early polls — former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke — have been all but absent from both states so far.

The expected large field and lack of an overwhelming favorite heading into the contests explains the slower dance among candidates, according to New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley.

"It's highly unusual for us not to have an assumed frontrunner, or someone of such significance that they would automatically dominate the field. We don't have that this cycle," Buckley said.

Hillary Clinton filled that role at this stage in both the 2008 and 2016 contests, while in 2012 President Barack Obama was running for re-election.

Activists in both states expect things will ramp up in January, when several likely contenders will announce they're forming exploratory committees or declare flat out that they are running.

Warren is expected to make her first visit to Iowa early next year, having intentionally stayed away in 2018 while running for re-election to the Senate. Harris may time a presidential announcement around a multi-city tour to promote her new book, "The Truths We Hold," which comes out on Jan. 8.

Still, given the large field expected, local Democratic organizers say they've been surprised by the relatively slow start in the two states where presidential politics can be a full-time endeavor.

Sean Bagniewski, chairman of Iowa's Polk County Democrats, put it this way: "The whole field has been in a staring contest to see who moves first. And there's a real hesitation for anyone sign on with a candidate now, because you don't know who else is going to get in."

Of the so-called top tier candidates, Booker has been the most visible in the early states. He spoke at the New Hampshire Democrats' victory celebration earlier this month, and headlined a state party gathering in Iowa in October. His PAC contributed heavily to both state parties and to Democrats running for office in both places, and he has been among the most aggressive in seeking campaign staff in both states.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a likely but lesser-known hopeful, has impressed Democrats in both Iowa and New Hampshire and has been actively planning his next moves. He held a conference call recently with donors across the country, in part to solicit input on how to position himself in the early voting states.

Others considering a bid also have dipped a toe into Iowa and New Hampshire. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand campaigned in New Hampshire with Democrats ahead of the midterms, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a similar visit to Iowa. California Rep. Eric Swalwell has made several visits to Iowa, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was in New Hampshire earlier this month.

Still, many activists in both states are awaiting an indication from Biden, Sanders and O'Rourke before committing to a candidate.

With their high national name recognition and built in network of supporters, Biden and Sanders are likely to wait a while before making their plans known. Biden, who ran unsuccessfully for the party's nomination in 1988 and 2008, has said concern for family will dictate whether he runs this time. Sanders, who nearly toppled Clinton in 2016 with a progressive challenge from the left, has an existing network in both Iowa and New Hampshire he can restart.

O'Rourke, a newcomer to national politics, nonetheless caught fire with Democrats around the country with his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. O'Rourke lost by less than 3 points, and raised at least $80 million through a national grassroots fundraising network that strategists believe he could easily tap again as a presidential contender.

Activists in Iowa and New Hampshire have heard little to nothing from any of the three, but their shadows loom large.

"Their entry, or decision not to get in, has huge ramifications on the race," Bagniewski said.

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