(Reuters) - U.S. Senator Kamala Harris is ramping up her ground operations in the crucial early voting state of Iowa as backers and advisers fret over growing risks of the once-rising star becoming an afterthought in the crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders.
Harris, 54, has positioned herself as a unifying candidate who can energize the party’s base of young, diverse progressives, while also appealing to more moderate voters. If elected in November 2020, the U.S. senator and former California attorney general would be the first black woman to become U.S. president.
Yet after climbing into double digits in opinion polls following a strong debate performance in June, Harris has slid out of the top tier in recent months and lags behind leading candidates’ fundraising hauls.
Two advisers cited stumbles over her healthcare position, inadequate response to criticism of her record as a prosecutor and the rise of rival U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren as contributors to the slide.
Concerned by the sagging support nationally as well as in states such as Iowa - where she has fallen to fifth place in surveys from as high as second place in July - local staffers and Democrats have been pressing Harris to spend more time there.
Iowa holds its caucuses on Feb. 3, the critical first vote in the state-by-state nominating contest to pick a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump next year. Since Iowa began holding its caucus in 1972, only candidates who have placed in the top three have gone on to win their party’s nomination.
The Harris campaign is doubling the numbers of staffers in Iowa to about 130 and opening an additional 10 offices for a total of 17 in the state. Harris will visit Iowa every week in October, said Deidre DeJear, Harris’ Iowa campaign chairwoman.
Harris also is beefing up her national staff, moving the chief of staff of her U.S. Senate office, Rohini Kosoglu, to the campaign as a top adviser, an aide to the campaign said on Tuesday. The campaign plans to double its staff in South Carolina, another early voting state, by the end of November.
Several sources close to Harris’ campaign said she always intended to increase her presence in Iowa this autumn but that her drop in the polls had given her campaign and backers a greater sense of urgency.
Kurt Meyer, the Democratic Party chairman of three rural counties north of Des Moines, Iowa’s most populous city, said he had urged campaign aides to increase Harris’ presence in Iowa earlier.
“I fear decisions are being made in Washington or California by people who don’t spend a lot of time in Iowa,” said Meyer, who has not endorsed Harris but called her a “very compelling candidate.”
A Sept. 21 poll by the Des Moines Register showed Harris with the support of 6% of likely caucus-goers, behind Warren at 22%, former Vice President Joe Biden with 20%, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at 11% and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 9%.
“I’m not thrilled about it,” Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa state party chairwoman who has endorsed Harris, said of the senator’s fifth-place status.
The campaign’s goal is for Harris to place at least third in Iowa, a feat that will take a huge ground game as well as a packed schedule of in-person campaigning, said Dvorsky, who along with her husband was an early backer of Barack Obama in his successful 2008 White House campaign.
Harris’ poll numbers have persuaded her team to become “more intentional” about Iowa, Dvorsky said.
“They realized they’re going to have to pay special attention to this place,” she said.
DeJear, the Iowa campaign chairwoman, said it was far too early to get concerned about poll numbers. Advisers have pointed to Obama’s late surge that saw him capture Iowa on the way to winning the White House in 2008.
Still, advisers acknowledged boosting Harris’ campaign in Iowa and nationally would take sharp focus - and a bit of luck.
“I’d be lying if I told you it was right where we wanted it to be,” said a longtime Harris adviser who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly.
“It’s going to take a lot of things to go right for her and a lot of things to go wrong for other people,” the adviser added.
After Harris spent considerable time during the summer meeting with donors, her campaign said on Tuesday she had raised $11.6 million in the third quarter, less than half of what Sanders raised and millions short of her close rival Buttigieg’s figure.
Recent polls have not been kind to Harris. She earned just 4% support from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in a national Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from last Thursday to Monday, putting her behind Biden, Sanders and Warren.
In Iowa, the Harris campaign will try to increase support by reaching out to those who do not normally participate in the caucuses, including young voters, people of color and disabled voters, DeJear said.
Democratic strategist Jeff Link, co-founder of the progressive group Focus on Rural America, said Harris also needed to spend more time with rural voters, not just to do well in the caucus but also in the general election should she become the party’s nominee.
Harris’ campaign said her August bus tour of the state included a visit with farmers in Lacona, Iowa. Last week, the candidate herself said there would be more such meetings ahead.
“I’m going to Iowa and I’m spending time with the farmers in Iowa,” Harris told diners at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. “They’re the same as the farmers in California. Same concerns, same issues, right?”
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney