US Democrats wonder and worry: Why isn't Clinton far ahead of Trump?

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters after holding a "National Security Working Session" on Sept 9, 2016.
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters after holding a "National Security Working Session" on Sept 9, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (THE WASHINGTON POST) - With Election Day less than two months away, Democrats are increasingly worried that Hillary Clinton has not built a formidable lead against Donald Trump despite his historic weaknesses as a national party candidate.

Even the Democratic nominee's advisers acknowledge that she must make changes, and quickly. Clinton leads Trump by a mere three percentage points, having fallen from her high of nine points in August, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average.

That tightening has frustrated many Clinton allies and operatives, who are astonished that she isn't running away with this race given Trump's deep unpopularity and never-ending stream of controversial comments.

"Generally, I'm concerned, frankly," said former Democratic Senate leader Thomas Daschle (South Dakota). "It still looks positive, and I think if you look at the swing states and where she is right now, she's got a lead. But it's certainly not in the bag. We have two months to go, and I think it's going to be a competitive race all the way through. I would say she's got at least a 60 per cent chance of winning."

At the same time, Daschle said, "all the things that Trump has done, the numbers should be far more explicitly in her favour, but they're not."

Among Democrats' concerns is the fact that Clinton spent a great deal of time over the summer raising millions of dollars in private fund-raisers - while Trump was devoting much of his schedule to rallies, speeches and TV appearances.

Clinton has focused more heavily on fund-raising than Democratic strategists had hoped would be necessary at this stage, partly to help Democrats running for Congress and state offices who would be useful to Clinton if she is president and partly to hold off further erosion in the polls.

One new goal for Clinton now, aides said, is to spend more time trying to connect directly with voters by sharing a more personal side of herself - and by telling them where she wants to take the country.

The campaign has long predicted a tightened race, and has taken to using recent polls both to imbue supporters with a sense of urgency - and to continue raising money.

"Trump's pulled neck-and-neck in a few recent public polls," and is ahead in the battleground Ohio in one survey, campaign manager Robby Mook wrote to supporters. "His fund-raising numbers are spiking - he and the Republicans raised US$90 million (S$122.3 million) in August (his best month yet). His ground game is growing," Mook wrote.

"That means we can't underestimate our opponent - because if we don't see a serious uptick in our fund-raising right now, Donald Trump's presidency could be a real possibility." Trump's campaign, meanwhile, battling historic unpopularity and a flood of public Republican defections, has been delighted and somewhat relieved to see the polls tighten. Aides attributed the change to Trump's packed August schedule, including a visit to Mexico, as well as increased discipline.

Just as Trump was repeatedly underestimated during the Republican primaries, his aides say he is again being underestimated heading into the general election. There's a sense in the campaign that things are finally coming together and that Trump can propel himself ahead of Clinton over the next two months.

That optimism is less prevalent outside the campaign, though many operatives are loath to predict an outcome in such a volatile election."It's really quite amazing that after the Trump adventure this is still a competitive race," said Scott Reed, chief strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce and a longtime Republican operative who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's former chief strategist, threw cold water on Trump's enthusiasm in an interview Friday, saying that he has yet to see Trump outperform Romney in any state or with any demographic in a way that would signal that he has a chance to win.

He said that any talk of Trump having a ground game is "fantasy" because Trump has yet to build a campaign structure anything like Clinton's. He called Trump's optimism "childish.""I don't see the path. I just don't see the path," Stevens said. "I've been in these races where you're nine points down, then you're five down - you're still losing."

Even among Democrats who wonder why Clinton isn't doing better, the overall view is that she remains in position to win in November."It's going to be the craziest 60 days we've ever seen in politics," said Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran Democratic consultant who is not working for the campaign but said she remains confident in Clinton's chances.

"Give me any other Republican, and I can tell you exactly how this is going to go down. I can't do that with Donald Trump." She added: "I don't think we've seen the most negative part of this campaign yet, and that's saying a lot."

Marsh and other operatives said Clinton will benefit by more directly engaging media and the voters in the final stretch of the race - as Trump has been doing already."I look at this race, and I'm thinking that's not a dumb thing for them have to have done," said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic consultant.

Some changes in Clinton's operation are already in evidence on the campaign trail. Among them: More interaction with the press; a series of policy speeches that Clinton's communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, said are "more about her than about him;" and a shift back toward positive messages in television advertising and efforts to present positive elements of her biography elsewhere.

By the end of this week, the first in which she has travelled on the same plane as her press corps, Clinton had appeared four times before their cameras to answer questions.

Clinton also played to the cameras and showed a flash of irreverent humour Friday when, after she had left the podium following a short press conference on national security issues, she paused and then returned to answer a shouted question about Trump.

With dramatic timing and a sardonic smile, Clinton slowly shook her head and took a breath before addressing Trump's perhaps ill-advised appearance on a television network backed by the Kremlin."Every day that goes by, this just becomes more of a reality television show," she said. "It's not a serious presidential campaign. And it is beyond one's imagination to have a candidate for president praising a Russian autocrat like Vladimir Putin and throwing his lot in with him," Clinton said.

Clinton also addressed head-on the perception that she is chilly or aloof, telling the online interview site "Humans of New York" on Thursday that her natural reserve is born of the "hard path" she walked as a professional woman."I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions," she wrote. "And that's a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don't want to seem 'walled off.' And sometimes I think I come across more in the 'walled off' arena."

She continued: "And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don't view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can't blame people for thinking that."

In addition, a television ad released Friday features a relaxed-looking Clinton speaking directly to the camera and making a bipartisan pitch that weaves in some biographical high points from her long career. It was the first positive ad released recently, after a string of harsh ones that mostly use Trump's own past statements against him while barely mentioning her."We've got to bring people together. That's how you solve problems, and that's what I'll do as president," she said in the ad.

Clinton holds several important advantages: She has experience and credentials, a vast campaign operation that drew the best political talent of her party, the hearty support of a popular sitting president and what seems to be plenty of money. She is marginally more popular than Trump.

She also has significant disadvantages. It's difficult for either party to win a third consecutive term, as evidenced by the fact that Republican George H.W. Bush is the only example in decades. A sizable number of voters think the country is on the wrong track.

And Clinton is a highly unpopular candidate in her own right. Democrats maintain in particular that Clinton faces unprecedented obstacles as both the first woman to be a major party nominee and the object of sustained Republican attack for 25 years.

"I don't care what any poll tells me," said Clinton's running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, speaking during an appearance Friday night in Norfolk, Virginia. "We're the underdog until they call us the winner."

In the meantime, Trump's campaign has done its best to take advantage of those weaknesses. After he restructured his campaign in August and seemed haltingly to heed the advice of his newly empowered advisers, Trump stepped up his attacks on Clinton's transparency, her use of a private email server while secretary of state and the ties between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.

Trump has also been moving quickly to build a ground game in battleground states, an effort that stalled under Trump's previous campaign leaders.

Already, the campaign has opened 30 new campaign offices in 21 states, with a heavy concentration in Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, as first reported by CNN.

Trump has also added more variety to his schedule, giving more policy speeches filled with specific ideas instead of just broad promises, visiting a black church in Detroit and talking with small groups of supporters and potential supporters.

In a Friday afternoon conference call with reporters, Republican National Committee officials and Trump's deputy campaign manager touted their field efforts and promoted their "National Day of Action," in which they will aim to knock on more than 350,000 doors across the country on Saturday.

Sean Spicer, the RNC"s chief strategist, said the number of RNC staffers and volunteers in the key states is up dramatically from four years ago."The footprint is exponentially larger," said Spicer.

The Clinton campaign has warned donors and supporters since the convention that the race would be tight and they cannot afford to get too comfortable."As I've said many, many times, I've always thought this was going to be a close election," Clinton said Thursday.

But there is little question that Clinton's organisation is broader and deeper than Trump's. In a sign of overall confidence, the campaign has actually expanded its outreach in three traditionally Republican states: Arizona, Utah and Georgia.

Clinton's top ground organiser, Marlon Marshall, touted what he called an unprecedented network of staff and volunteers in a memo to campaign supporters Friday. He claimed the campaign's strategy "has enabled us to take full advantage of Donald Trump's deep unpopularity," but warned that "this election will be harder to win than many people think." John Morgan, a Florida donor and supporter, said Clinton's slim lead is not surprising, given the strong partisan divide nationally.

"Politics is like sports. You have your team and you are sticking with them all the way. If you are an FSU fan there is nothing that your team could do to cause you to root against them, much less pull for Florida," Morgan said.

A slim margin of victory is still victory, Morgan said, and still would give Clinton a strong governing mandate."George Bush lost the total vote and really the Electoral College, yet entered with what he called a mandate. If she wins by five and over 300 electoral votes, by those standards her mandate should be monarchy-like powers."

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart took the opposite position, saying that Clinton cannot afford to just squeak past an opponent as bad as Trump."Hillary Clinton needs to win, but she needs a victory which will allow her to say the American public has voted for an agenda that they want her to implement," he said.