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Soup for 3: Democratic hopefuls mingle with voters at church

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the Story County Democrats' annual soup supper fundraiser, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the growing Democratic presidential field, which now totals 12, is that it includes five women, at least three of whom have a real chance to win the party's nomination.

But the chances of Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren may depend on their ability to score strongly -- and probably to win -- in one of the four early tests: Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar in neighboring Iowa, Massachusetts Sen. Warren in neighboring New Hampshire, and California Sen. Harris with the minority heavy electorates in Nevada and South Carolina.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's hopes of inserting herself into the upper tier of prospects may also depend on her ability to break through in New Hampshire, where she attended Dartmouth College. The fifth woman, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, seems mainly along for the experience, barring an unexpected showing when televised debates start in June.

With the usual caveat that anything can happen in the next year, here are some ways each has displayed strengths or weaknesses in early campaigning:

Kamala Harris

The first-term Californian has displayed Obama-like charisma, and President Donald Trump said he was impressed by the large crowd at her Oakland kickoff. She has generally hewed to the liberal line on issues, but attracted some criticism when she suggested Medicare for all would end the private health insurance many Americans enjoy, then retreated.

More recently, Politico described her difficulties in providing specifics in Iowa when asked her strategy to help immigrants gain U.S. citizenship, noting she responded with generalities and an attempt at establishing a personal connection. The incident underscored her challenge in adapting to the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire after thriving in California's media dominated politics.

Her failure to respond with specifics could signal problems in the forthcoming debates and contrasts with the detailed immigration plan Beto O'Rourke outlined, even before becoming a candidate. The unanswerable question is whether Harris needs a strong Iowa or New Hampshire showing to succeed in Nevada, which is heavily Hispanic, and South Carolina, where the Democratic electorate is more than half black. Victory in South Carolina can provide a big boost for the Super Tuesday primaries in California and Texas three days later.

Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota neighbor has been a frequent Iowa visitor and proved a popular speaker before Democratic convention delegations and other party groups. Since announcing her candidacy amid a mid-winter Minnesota blizzard, she has cast herself among the more moderate contenders by refusing to commit to the specifics of two early liberal litmus tests, Medicare for all and the Green New Deal.

Her reputation for seeking bipartisan solutions has attracted praise from Republican senators, something that could be problematic with the liberal Iowa electorate. She has been distracted by negative stories about discord in her office, which has had unusual turnover, which she attributes to her strict standards.

She sought to dismiss such stories with humor, when she spoke Saturday night at the Washington press corps' annual Gridiron dinner. Alluding to reports she often yelled at her staff, she said she was asked if she would need a microphone or preferred "to yell at everyone." Her answer: microphone. Less successful was her attempt to counter The New York Times' story alleging she mistreated her staff, which noted that, when an aide brought her a salad but no fork, she ate it with her comb and told the aide to clean it. The salad at the dinner, she joked, "was OK, but I thought it could have used a little more scalp oil and a pinch of dandruff."

Elizabeth Warren

Warren has shown her expected passion and an ability to raise the money that will be needed for the early tests and the March 3 primaries in at least nine states. Her early Iowa visits attracted enthusiastic crowds, and a strong showing with that state's generally liberal Democratic electorate may become necessary, given some signs of slippage in New Hampshire, which votes eight days later.

While current polls generally measure name identification and don't predict primary success, the University of New Hampshire's Granite State Poll showed last week that Warren lost more than half of her support since last summer, serious slippage in a state where New England candidates generally fare well. She trailed far behind another New Hampshire neighbor, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden, and barely led O'Rourke.

Those three have so far overshadowed Gillibrand. First quarter funding reports will show if the New York senator has overcome opposition from some fundraisers and home state Democrats after her leading role in forcing Minnesota Sen. Al Franken's resignation and her retroactive comment that President Bill Clinton should have resigned after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

With Sanders off to a strong fundraising start and Biden, O'Rourke and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown poised to join the field, a lot will change in the 11 months before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

The only safe bet is that, after the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, the field will be smaller and the real contenders will have emerged.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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